NUIG team gets €10m to work on IT tools to help prevent pandemics

Pandem-2 project to draw on experts’ prescience and create resource-modelling tools

Prof Máire Connolly, NUI Galway:  “Managing a pandemic is like landing a plane on the Hudson.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Prof Máire Connolly, NUI Galway: “Managing a pandemic is like landing a plane on the Hudson.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

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A team led by an NUI Galway academic which predicted three years ago the risk of a global pandemic was “greater now than every before” has been awarded €10 million to help develop robust systems to respond to future pandemics.

Prof Máire Connolly from the discipline of bacteriology in the school of medicine, NUIG, was the co-ordinator of Pandem (pandemic risk and emergency management).

The project, which published a report in 2017, proved to be prescient both in predicting a pandemic but also in identifying gaps across a broad spectrum of areas, including planning, communications, community engagement and situational awareness.

It concluded: “[Our] threat analysis [is] the risk of a pandemic is greater now than ever before. Influenza viruses continue to circulate between birds, pigs and humans.”

Its recommendations included the need to design state-of the art surveillance, as well as sophisticated IT tools that would help respond to an outbreak and predict how it would develop. It also highlighted the need for more sharing of knowledge, better understanding of the needs to ramp up workforce capacity, and the need to conduct more simulation exercises across sectors.

Pandemic management

Pandem-2, which is being launched on Tuesday, has been commissioned to design those complex IT systems that will allow the EU and its member states respond quickly and effectively to the next pandemic, whenever it might arise. Coordinated by NUIG, it involves a total of 19 partners including the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“Managing a pandemic is like landing a plane on the Hudson,” Prof Connolly told The Irish Times.

“You are in an emergency situation but you need as much information as you can, and you need to have it up on platform with a wide range of parameters.”

She said what the team found in phase one of its research was significant advances on the diagnostic, therapeutic, biomedical and laboratory fronts. “However, the IT tools around pandemic management were lacking.”

She said these gaps included a lack of resource-modelling tools, for example, predicting the quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed or beds that would be required. There was also a need for simulation mapping, where agencies could run different scenarios and assess what responses were required for each one. There were also needs for a central dashboard where the main information was collated.

Many of those gaps in preparedness were exposed when the pandemic struck for the first time in Europe early in 2020.

Operational strategy

That aspect of Pandem-2’s research will be led by Prof Jim Duggan of the school of computer science in NUIG. His team will develop a resource modelling tool, Pandem-Cap, which will be an IT dashboard for resource modelling. “It will host pandemic-relevant data from across Europe,” said Prof Duggan. “It will help pandemic managers to build capacity and develop operational strategy for any future pandemic that may arise.”

Prof Connolly said other important lessons will inform the research. They include communications strategy – Irish PR company Carr Communications is one of the 19 agencies involved in the project.

“Trust is a hugely important commodity,” she said. “The level of solidarity and coherence and commitment in Ireland reminded me a little of the foot-and-mouth outbreak [in 2001]. We rolled in as a society.”

Prior to taking up her position in NUIG she worked in senior positions for the WHO in Geneva, including setting the global research agenda for pandemic preparedness and humanitarian emergencies. An author of three books on communicable diseases in emergencies, she has also worked on UN missions in 15 emergency-affected countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Prof Connolly pointed out that the mortality rate was relatively low compared to some other viral outbreaks and diseases. “Covid-19 is a disease with about 1 per cent mortality rate while Sars had 10 per cent and the avian flu, H5N1, can have morality rates of between 10 per cent and 18 per cent.

“The one positive thing is there has been immense advances in vaccines and diagnostics that will stand to us in the next pandemic.”

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