How Homeland Security’s Biosurveillance Arm Uses Tech To Track a Pandemic

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The National Biosurveillance Integration Center began tracking what would become the novel coronavirus on Jan. 2.

The Homeland Security Department’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center, or NBIC, is tapping into emerging and advanced technologies to help the government monitor and respond to the novel coronavirus.

Tasked with analyzing, integrating and dispensing critical data and information about health and disease events that pose threats to America, NBIC “began tracking an outbreak of unidentified viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China on January 2, providing early situational awareness on what we now know is COVID-19,” Kenneth Cuccinelli II, who is currently serving as DHS deputy secretary, told Congress in early March.

NBIC Director Aaron Firoved recently shared details with Nextgov via email regarding how technological tools are boosting the trace and fight of the coronavirus and how regular biosurveillance operations have shifted in the midst of a public health crisis. 

“NBIC uses its open source tool—Biofeeds—to stay on top of the outbreak,” Firoved explained.

As a custom-designed data collection and analysis system, Biofeeds leverages machine learning techniques, natural language processing, and automated tagging to boost officials’ ability to quickly and effectively identify information that’s most relevant to reported biological events. The resource supports daily biosurveillance operations, Firoved noted, mining through data from more than 800,000 unique sources published from around the world, in more than 90 languages. 

“This tool enables NBIC analysts to readily search for information on new and ongoing global biological events and, as they continue to use Biofeeds, that information is fed back into the system’s machine learning processes to improve the automatic detection of biothreats,” Firoved said.

Insiders also turn to other technologies for early, sensitive information sharing. For instance, the center uses a secure interagency message board—known as Wildfire—that’s used by the Biosurveillance Indications and Warnings Analytic Community, which Firoved said is a federal interagency group “focused on the timely collaborative exchange of critical information.”

In the congressional testimony, Cuccinelli also noted that since the coronavirus’ early days, NBIC has supported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Customs and Border Protection by analyzing relevant passenger travel and flight data, which in turn initially helped determine which airports were selected for advanced health screenings for COVID-19. 

Regarding the center’s efforts, Firoved said “NBIC also developed code to facilitate faster analysis and visualization of flight data to help understand where travelers from hotspots were arriving in the U.S.” 

He explained that NBIC worked collaboratively with CBP and CDC to “retrieve aggregated, de-identified data on travelers moving through outbreak areas.” The center then assessed this flight network to spot airport hubs for passengers that are coming to or from a given country.

“Once those high-traffic, highly connected airports are identified, DHS, including CBP and the Transportation Security Administration, works closely with the CDC to route all admissible persons who have been in areas designated in presidential proclamations—mainland China, Iran, the European Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland—during a specified timeframe, to one of the airports where the federal government has focused public health resources,” Firoved explained. 

On top of that, NBIC also uses commercial flight data to trace flight networks outside of the United States and subsequently determine the flow of passengers between countries that may border the nation.

“Early in the outbreak, this allowed us to analyze passenger flow from China to the Americas to consider the risk of spread in the western hemisphere. Having solid data science workflows has allowed us to quickly retool analyses for different parameters, datasets, and questions,” Firoved explained. “NBIC has automated report generation, saving person-hours and allowing analysts to spend their energy on more challenging analysis.”  

The center also continues to generate and distribute a structured and prioritized list of biological threats that it tracks globally to share with its federal, state and local partners. But Firoved noted that the COVID-19 pandemic “has significantly increased” both the volume of data NBIC analyzes and the frequency with which it’s had to report out findings across most of its efforts. 

Still, officials are turning to technological resources to adapt to the strains.

“NBIC is pursuing efforts like automated web scraping to allow analysts to assemble the data more quickly,” Firoved said. “We automate distribution through other organizations’ portals, freeing up considerable analyst time so they can focus on gathering and interpreting data.” 

He also shed light on how the center’s work and personnel internally have shifted since the early days of the initial COVID-19 outbreak. 

Firoved said that when the health event was first identified, the center reported it in daily biosurveillance procedures. As the coronavirus spead to wider regions in China, and then to areas outside of the country, NBIC “increased its operational tempo” and devoted an entire team of analysts to COVID-19 reporting and surveillance. And then as it became increasingly clear that human-to-human spread was a driving factor of transmission, the center increased its operational tempo “to the highest level.”

“Recently, as the domestic concern has increased, NBIC stood up two separate teams to ensure that enough staff are still available if one team became sick or quarantined,” Firoved said.