CDC launches new pandemic forecasting center

The CDC’s new Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA) intends to modernize the country’s ability to predict disease outbreaks. Image via the CDC.

This week, the CDC introduced a new team focused on modeling infectious diseases, called the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (or CFA). The agency aims to hire about 100 scientists and communicators for the center; they’ll currently focus on COVID-19, but will expand to other diseases in the future.

“We think of ourselves like the National Weather Service, but for infectious diseases,” Caitlin Rivers, the new center’s associate director for science, told the Washington Post.

This idea of forecasting infectious diseases like the weather was a major theme of an event that the White House hosted last Tuesday, timed with the introduction of the CDC’s new center. This event, a three-hour summit, featured speeches from the administration’s COVID-19 response leaders (Dr. Ashish Jha, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, etc.), as well as panels bringing together the scientists who have joined CFA so far, healthcare leaders, and public health workers from around the country.

I watched the event on a livestream, and kept a running Twitter thread of key points:

As discussed at the summit and on CFA’s new website, this center has three main functions:

  • Predict: A team of disease modelers, epidemiologists, and data scientists will establish methods for forecasting disease spread and severity, in collaboration with state and local leaders.
  • Inform: A team of science communicators will share information from the Predict team’s modeling efforts with public health officials and with the public, ensuring that this information is actionable.
  • Innovate: In addition to its in-house analysis and communication, CFA will fund research and development to drive better data collection and forecasting strategies.

According to the CDC, CFA has already awarded $26 million in funding to “academic institutions and federal partners” working on forecasting methods, as part of this “innovate” priority. Neither CFA’s website nor the summit provided any indication of what these institutions are or what they’re working on; I wrote to the CDC’s media team asking for more information, and have yet to hear back from them.

At last Tuesday’s summit, it was nice to hear health officials from the local to the federal levels describe COVID-19 data issues that I’ve been writing about for two years. These included: the need for more timely data on issues like new variants and vaccine effectiveness; the need for more demographic data that can inform health equity priorities; the need for more coordination (and standardization) between different state and local health agencies; and the need for actionable data that are communicated in a way people outside science and health settings can understand.

But for all this discussion of the problems with America’s current health data systems, the event included very little indication of potential solutions. For instance, as Bloomberg health editor Drew Armstrong pointed out, nobody mentioned that many of our problems would be solved with a national healthcare system, following the lead of the U.K.—whose data we’ve relied on throughout the pandemic.

Moreover, Tuesday’s event was very rushed: each panel was just half an hour long, with only a few minutes for each expert panelist to make their points and barely any time for questions. I would’ve loved to hear entire keynote speeches from people like Dr. Anne Zink, director of Alaska’s public health agency, and Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service. But they were relegated to brief comments.

It almost felt like the Biden administration had taken a couple of hours in their schedule to appease the science and health experts who wanted to see some acknowledgment of the COVID-19 data issues—and then went right back to downplaying the pandemic. (Also not lost on me: this same day, administration officials were “weighing the political risks” of appealing the blocked travel mask mandate.)

I would love to be proven wrong, and to see this new CDC center usher in an era of standardized, actionable infectious disease data and modeling across the country. But right now, I’m not very optimistic.

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