NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – “The next pandemic isn’t a question of if, but when,” said OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia. Two separate groups of researchers just received a grant for $1 million each to help predict and prevent the next infectious disease pandemic.

The National Science Foundation just handed out 20 grants to groups of researchers across the country. University of Oklahoma is the only institution to have received two grants for the NSF’s Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention initiative.

As the saying goes, prevention is key. Therefore, developing a new way to gather, analyze and share data is critical to prevent a future pandemic. The delayed response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the great need for early detection methods, including both human health and animal health, to ensure pathogens affecting animals do not cross over to the human population.

David Ebert, Ph.D., OU professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering, is the chief investigator on one of the projects. According to a press release from OU, Ebert is also the director of the Data Institute for Societal Challenges at OU, which applies expertise in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data-enabled research to solving societal challenges.

Ebert’s team includes a series of experts from data science, computer engineering, public health, veterinary sciences, and microbiology.

The team will look at developing a system called One Health to merge information from veterinarians, wastewater data, health departments and clinics to build algorithms to detect any possible source and spread of disease, which would be shared nationally.

“Integrating and developing new sources of data with existing data sources combined with new tools for detection, localization and response planning using a One Health approach could enable local and state public health partners to respond more quickly and effectively to reduce illness and death,” Ebert said. “This planning grant will develop proof-of-concept techniques and systems in partnership with local, state and regional public health officials and create a multistate partner network and design for a center to prevent the next pandemic.”

The second $1 million grant was awarded to a group of OU researchers who will tackle predicting the next outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, which has wiped out billions of birds across the globe, and crossed over into the human population, claiming hundreds of lives.

Xiangming Xiao, Ph.D., OU professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology and director of the Center for Earth Observation and Modeling, is leading a team that would look to create an International Center for Avian Influenza Pandemic Prediction and Prevention.

“This grant is a milestone in our long-term effort for interdisciplinary and convergent research in the areas of One Health (human-animal-environment health) and big data science,” Xiao said. “This is an international project with geographical coverage from North America, Europe and Asia; thus, it will enable OU faculty and students to develop greater ability, capability, capacity and leaderships in prediction and prevention of global avian influenza pandemic.”