Searching for new ways to control pandemics

06 December 2017

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The control of new, emerging infections is a defining problem of our globalised age. Although we cannot predict what will cause the next pandemic, there are powerful new sources of information about infectious disease transmission which could potentially transform their management and control. A new Oxford Martin research programme aims to build greater understanding of the spread of epidemics by using genome sequences from emerging pathogens, combined with geographical data of how and where human populations are moving in real-time.

The Oxford Martin Programme on Pandemic Genomics brings together researchers from mathematical biology, geography, zoology, and epidemiology to model the genomes of bacteria and viruses as they spread, and to map population density and mobility during an outbreak.

The new programme is led by Professor Oliver Pybus, Professor Angela McLean and Dr. Janey Messina, all based at the University of Oxford.

"Outbreaks of emerging infectious disease are becoming more frequent and controlling them is difficult, especially if we know little about the disease-causing agent involved” says Oliver Pybus. “Fortunately there are two new sources of information that we can use to help us understand, predict, and control emerging epidemics. First, pathogen genome sequences are a powerful source of information about disease transmission, and due to technological improvements it is getting ever easier to generate such data in the field during an outbreak.

Second, highly detailed information about human mobility can help us predict how chains of transmission might move to new locations. However we don’t yet know how to combine these different data types in a way that will generate useful predictions for decision makers. This new research programme on pandemic genomics is a unique opportunity to make a theoretical great leap forward, and create an inter-disciplinary framework for epidemic analysis that is fit for the 21st century."

Dr Janey Messina believes that modelling infectious disease spread is an interdisciplinary challenge by nature, as the movement of pathogens in human populations involves a complex set of relationships between people and their environments:

“The intersection of phylogenetics, epidemiology, and geography is fundamental to this critical challenge, requiring the combination of information about population movement, genomic information, and epidemic dynamics”.

The programme will also engage with policy makers to understand what decisions they must make, and when, during an outbreak, and therefore ensure that this ground-breaking research does improve the tools available to support policy decisions during an outbreak.