Researchers create sophisticated information biology computer models that offer pandemic responders vital information.

The University of Virginia's Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative team is on the front lines of the national modeling, monitoring, planning and response to COVID-19. The institute integrates scientific research – from genetic sequencing to policy analysis – to tackle the complex task of understanding massively interacting systems and predicting solutions to issues affecting human health, well-being and habitat. The methodology for the research lies in information biology, which is the synthesis of mathematics, computation, informatics, and biology.

The Biocomplexity Institute team is led by Christopher L. Barrett, the institute’s executive director, Distinguished Professor in Biocomplexity and faculty member in UVA Engineering’s Department of Computer Science. Madhav Marathe, a Distinguished Professor in Biocomplexity and faculty member in the Department of Computer Science, is director of the institute’s Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing Division. Anil Vullikanti, professor of computer science, and Henning S. Mortveit, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, are also members of the institute’s team.

Biocomplexity Institute Researchers

From left, Christopher L. Barrett, Madhav Marathe, Henning S. Mortveit and Anil Vullikanti are professors in the University of Virginia School of Engineering and members of the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute and Initiative team.

Institute researchers have long provided support to U.S. government officials during other major epidemics, including flu outbreaks, MERS, Ebola and Zika.

This year, as early as February, the Biocomplexity Institute was working with federal and state government health agencies to help understand the COVID-19 spread. The institute had created sophisticated computer models that projected potential scenarios, critical intelligence for making decisions that would greatly affect health outcomes.

UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute was sought out by numerous national media outlets seeking to answer the public's questions surrounding COVID-19, including the amount of testing needed, effects of population density on severity, potential duration, expected scope and best practices for social distancing.

On March 24, The National Science Foundation announced it was awarding the institute a five-year, $10 million collaborative grant to lead more than 40 researchers from 14 U.S. institutions and more than 20 internationally renowned partners in a project titled, “Expeditions in Computing: Global Pervasive Computational Epidemiology.” The project is aimed at revolutionizing real-time epidemiology.

“Through the Expeditions project, we will use computing to address pandemics like COVID-19 or H1N1 in ways that would not have been possible just 10 or 15 years ago,” said Marathe, Expeditions project principal investigator. “In that time, we have seen a huge increase in the kind of data available to us, the speed at which we can access data, major advancements in the power of computing and in mathematical theory – all of which can now be applied to this kind of problem.”

“We see social, technological, economic, and presently, infectious disease contagions reshaping society on a global scale,” Barrett said. “These contagions are the by-products of humanity’s spectacular success as a species. The various cases of contagion are different in almost every observable way in the world; however, they share deep underlying forms and produce similar needs for social institutions such as governments, markets, and voter citizens to comprehend them and participate in their mitigation and solution. It is extremely important that elite scientific research programs such as Expeditions, bringing together such talent as we see in this team and problems such as we see in this project, are set in the direction of understanding and solving the myriad problems that constitute these powerful phenomena, and infectious disease computational epidemiology is a critical and central component.”

The same day the National Science Foundation announced the Expeditions project award, new forecasting tools Biocomplexity Institute researchers are developing were featured in The Wall Street Journal: “AI Platform Aims to Help Policy Makers Calibrate Virus Response.”

The institute continues to be sought out by media outlets looking for real-time data they can share with concerned citizens. Most recently, TechRepublic lauded the institute for helping the public gain a better understanding of the global response through digital maps illustrating the spread of the virus

The institute has also been working with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to help the state monitor the impact of COVID-19 mitigations. On April 14, division director Madhav Marathe and executive director Christopher L. Barrett presented models in partnership with the state of Virginia that suggest social distancing efforts have slowed the spread of the virus.

“The Biocomplexity Institute research team collaborates across many disciplines to discover connections among health, information networks, security and infrastructure," said Kevin Skadron, Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor and chair of UVA Engineering's Department of Computer Science. "Constant improvement in methods for understanding these interconnections are critical to understanding the far-reaching implications of this current health crisis. The institute’s research team is a world leader in both the breadth and the depth of their analysis, and their ability to innovate rapidly in response to a situation like the novel coronavirus pandemic.”