Officials told the Office of Science and Technology where data collection and sharing could improve.
Academic technical experts and agency officials met with members of the White House Office of Science and Technology policy Wednesday to discuss infectious disease modeling efforts currently underway to address the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and help prevent future health threats.
Modeling enables U.S. health professionals and federal leaders “to understand likely outcomes anticipated from COVID-19 within the context of how this virus functions within a population, how we prioritize interventions to maximize prevention, and how we control resources and manage supply chains,” OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier said in a statement, after leading the meeting.
Two OSTP aides who attended the meeting briefed Nextgov Friday, under the condition of anonymity, on insights that were shared in the discussion and concerns around data quality and gaps that were raised. They said the meeting marks the beginning of a collective push to increase dialogue between agency and academic players, enhance U.S. models’ output and ultimately provide America’s leaders with more thorough scientific information as they make critical public health decisions.
“The meeting was a first step,” one aide said. “It's become a critical priority for Dr. Droegemeier—certainly not a one-off—as we look to press, not only for the purposes of [supporting] and informing the current outbreak response to the United States and internationally, but also how we're going to leverage that to transition to something more thorough and more forward-lasting.”
There’s already a “pretty well-established” community of federal agencies that have worked together with OSTP under the National Science and Technology Council over the last four years on efforts around forecasting, modeling and prediction of infectious diseases. A lot of the work initially stemmed from past Zika and H1N1 health emergencies, officials said. But with the latest coronavirus outbreak, OSTP saw the critical need to pull the many modeling stakeholders together now to establish a comprehensive, interagency network with more open lines of communication regarding data resources, hurdles impacting the work, and areas where the administration can address issues or help catalyze solutions through collective or more streamlined efforts.
At the meeting, agencies and academic entities highlighted their specific work on “a multitude of different types of models and their outputs,” an aide said. For instance, the Health and Human Services Department has pulled officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Health and HHS’ Office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, or ASPR, into one single program office “in the short term” to hone in on modeling efforts that can specifically inform disease interventions. “When we're looking at ventilators, when we're looking at the possibility of protocols for dissemination of medical countermeasures, what’s their availability and usage of the Strategic National Stockpile? Things like that,” the aide said, offering examples of the work. “So they're focused highly on bringing those assets into a more formalized way of informing intervention modeling versus what we traditionally see.”
On top of a rundown of present efforts, OSTP also heard about the need for increased data sharing and gaps where there could be improvement. “If you ask a scientist—really any scientist there—they're going to say they never can get enough data,” one aide noted. Still, one challenge OSTP heard U.S. officials are dealing with is a lack of information coming from overseas—and particularly from China and Italy, two countries that saw early and dramatic spread. Stakeholders said they would like to see an increase in such data going forward.
Officials also want more data on how human interactions “are playing or are not directly playing into the spread,” an aide said. Such behavioral dynamics seem to be impacting the COVID-19 outbreak differently than how Ebola, Zika and others played out in the past. Droegemeier and his team are aware that relevant data pools aren't as large as previously thought or aren’t yet coalesced in the right, useful place, an aide said.
But OSTP also views the data quality, access and shareability issues as an opportunity for improvement in this outbreak and chance to become better prepared for others that could come.
“That's part of our responsibility—making sure that amongst the departments and agencies Dr. Droegemeier, in support of the overall task force, can pull together and identify gaps to that data sharing, which is not something that's purposeful on behalf of departments and agencies, or the academic institutions or even industry,” the aide said. “It's all about bringing that coordination together, which is fundamentally our role here anyway.”