Applied mathematician Sara del Valle works at the U.S.'s foremost nuclear weapons lab: Los Alamos. Once colloquially called Atomic City, it's a hidden place 45 minutes into the mountains northwest of Santa Fe. Here, engineers developed the first atomic bomb.
Like AccuWeather, an app for disease prediction could help people alter their behavior to live better lives.
Today, Los Alamos still a small science town, though no longer a secret, nor in the business of building new bombs. Instead, it's tasked with, among other things, keeping the stockpile of nuclear weapons safe and stable: not exploding when they're not supposed to (yes, please) and exploding if someone presses that red button (please, no).
Del Valle, though, doesn't work on any of that. Los Alamos is also interested in other kinds of booms—like the explosion of a contagious disease that could take down a city. Predicting (and, ideally, preventing) such epidemics is del Valle's passion. She hopes to develop an app that's like AccuWeather for germs: It would tell you your chance of getting the flu, or dengue or Zika, in your city on a given day. And like AccuWeather, it could help people alter their behavior to live better lives, whether that means staying home on a snowy morning or washing their hands on a sickness-heavy commute.
Sara del Valle of Los Alamos is working to predict and prevent epidemics using data and machine learning.
Since the beginning of del Valle's career, she's been driven by one thing: using data and predictions to help people behave practically around pathogens. As a kid, she'd always been good at math, but when she found out she could use it to capture the tentacular spread of disease, and not just manipulate abstractions, she was hooked.
When she made her way to Los Alamos, she started looking at what people were doing during outbreaks. Using social media like Twitter, Google search data, and Wikipedia, the team started to sift for trends. Were people talking about hygiene, like hand-washing? Or about being sick? Were they Googling information about mosquitoes? Searching Wikipedia for symptoms? And how did those things correlate with the spread of disease?
It was a new, faster way to think about how pathogens propagate in the real world. Usually, there's a 10- to 14-day lag in the U.S. between when doctors tap numbers into spreadsheets and when that information becomes public. By then, the world has moved on, and so has the disease—to other villages, other victims.
"We found there was a correlation between actual flu incidents in a community and the number of searches online and the number of tweets online," says del Valle. That was when she first let herself dream about a real-time forecast, not a 10-days-later backcast. Del Valle's group—computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, economists, public health professionals, epidemiologists, satellite analysis experts—has continued to work on the problem ever since their first Twitter parsing, in 2011.
They've had their share of outbreaks to track. Looking back at the 2009 swine flu pandemic, they saw people buying face masks and paying attention to the cleanliness of their hands. "People were talking about whether or not they needed to cancel their vacation," she says, and also whether pork products—which have nothing to do with swine flu—were safe to buy.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place.
They watched internet conversations during the measles outbreak in California. "There's a lot of online discussion about anti-vax sentiment, and people trying to convince people to vaccinate children and vice versa," she says.
Today, they work on predicting the spread of Zika, Chikungunya, and dengue fever, as well as the plain old flu. And according to the CDC, that latter effort is going well.
Since 2015, the CDC has run the Epidemic Prediction Initiative, a competition in which teams like de Valle's submit weekly predictions of how raging the flu will be in particular locations, along with other ailments occasionally. Michael Johannson is co-founder and leader of the program, which began with the Dengue Forecasting Project. Its goal, he says, was to predict when dengue cases would blow up, when previously an area just had a low-level baseline of sick people. "You'll get this massive epidemic where all of a sudden, instead of 3,000 to 4,000 cases, you have 20,000 cases," he says. "They kind of come out of nowhere."
But the "kind of" is key: The outbreaks surely come out of somewhere and, if scientists applied research and data the right way, they could forecast the upswing and perhaps dodge a bomb before it hit big-time. Questions about how big, when, and where are also key to the flu.
A big part of these projects is the CDC giving the right researchers access to the right information, and the structure to both forecast useful public-health outcomes and to compare how well the models are doing. The extra information has been great for the Los Alamos effort. "We don't have to call departments and beg for data," says del Valle.
When data isn't available, "proxies"—things like symptom searches, tweets about empty offices, satellite images showing a green, wet, mosquito-friendly landscape—are helpful: You don't have to rely on anyone's health department.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place. But del Valle wants more than weekly numbers on a government website; she wants that weather-app-inspired fortune-teller, incorporating the many diseases you could get today, standing right where you are. "That's our dream," she says.
This plot shows the the correlations between the online data stream, from Wikipedia, and various infectious diseases in different countries. The results of del Valle's predictive models are shown in brown, while the actual number of cases or illness rates are shown in blue.
(Courtesy del Valle)
The goal isn't to turn you into a germophobic agoraphobe. It's to make you more aware when you do go out. "If you know it's going to rain today, you're more likely to bring an umbrella," del Valle says. "When you go on vacation, you always look at the weather and make sure you bring the appropriate clothing. If you do the same thing for diseases, you think, 'There's Zika spreading in Sao Paulo, so maybe I should bring even more mosquito repellent and bring more long sleeves and pants.'"
They're not there yet (don't hold your breath, but do stop touching your mouth). She estimates it's at least a decade away, but advances in machine learning could accelerate that hypothetical timeline. "We're doing baby steps," says del Valle, starting with the flu in the U.S., dengue in Brazil, and other efforts in Colombia, Ecuador, and Canada. "Going from there to forecasting all diseases around the globe is a long way," she says.
But even AccuWeather started small: One man began predicting weather for a utility company, then helping ski resorts optimize their snowmaking. His influence snowballed, and now private forecasting apps, including AccuWeather's, populate phones across the planet. The company's progression hasn't been without controversy—privacy incursions, inaccuracy of long-term forecasts, fights with the government—but it has continued, for better and for worse.
Disease apps, perhaps spun out of a small, unlikely team at a nuclear-weapons lab, could grow and breed in a similar way. And both the controversies and public-health benefits that may someday spin out of them lie in the future, impossible to predict with certainty.
No human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when he’s 105?
At the Louisiana Senior Games in November 2021, 105-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge became the oldest woman to run 100 meters in an official competition, qualifying her for this year's National Senior Games. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was the only competitor in the race for people 105 and older. In this Leaps.org video, I interview Hawkins about her lifestyle habits over the decades. Then I ask Steven Austad, a pioneer in studying the mechanisms of aging, for his scientific insights into how those aspiring to become super-agers might follow in Hawkins' remarkable footsteps.
Following the Footsteps of a 105-Year-Old SprinterNo human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when ...
A new virus has emerged and stoked fears of another pandemic: monkeypox. Since May 2022, it has been detected in 29 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico among international travelers and their close contacts. On a worldwide scale, as of June 30, there have been 5,323 cases in 52 countries.
The good news: An existing vaccine can go a long way toward preventing a catastrophic outbreak. Because monkeypox is a close relative of smallpox, the same vaccine can be used—and it is about 85 percent effective against the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Also on the plus side, monkeypox is less contagious with milder illness than smallpox and, compared to COVID-19, produces more telltale signs. Scientists think that a “ring” vaccination strategy can be used when these signs appear to help with squelching this alarming outbreak.
How it’s transmitted
Monkeypox spreads between people primarily through direct contact with infectious sores, scabs, or bodily fluids. People also can catch it through respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of June 30, there have been 396 documented monkeypox cases in the U.S., and the CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to mobilize additional personnel and resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is aiming to boost testing capacity and accessibility. No Americans have died from monkeypox during this outbreak but, during the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 to date), Africa has documented 12,141 cases and 363 deaths from monkeypox.
Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
A person infected with monkeypox typically has symptoms—for instance, fever and chills—in a contagious state, so knowing when to avoid close contact with others makes it easier to curtail than COVID-19.
Advantages of ring vaccination
For this reason, it’s feasible to vaccinate a “ring” of people around the infected individual rather than inoculating large swaths of the population. Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
With many infections, “it normally would make sense to everyone to vaccinate more widely,” says Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a professor and director of the Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. However, “in this case, ring vaccination may be sufficient to contain the outbreak and also minimize the rare, but potentially serious side effects of the smallpox/monkeypox vaccine.”
There are two licensed smallpox vaccines in the United States: ACAM2000 (live Vaccina virus) and JYNNEOS (live virus non-replicating). The ACAM 2000, Van Voorhis says, is the old smallpox vaccine that, in rare instances, could spread diffusely within the body and cause heart problems, as well as severe rash in people with eczema or serious infection in immunocompromised patients.
To prevent organ damage, the current recommendation would be to use the JYNNEOS vaccine, says Phyllis Kanki, a professor of health sciences in the division of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, according to a report on the CDC’s website, people with immunocompromising conditions could have a higher risk of getting a severe case of monkeypox, despite being vaccinated, and “might be less likely to mount an effective response after any vaccination, including after JYNNEOS.”
In the late 1960s, the ring vaccination strategy became part of the WHO’s mission to globally eradicate smallpox, with the last known natural case described in Somalia in 1977. Ring vaccination can also refer to how a clinical trial is designed, as was the case in 2015, when this approach was used for researching the benefits of an investigational Ebola vaccine in Guinea, Kanki says.
“Since Monkeypox spreads by close contact and we have an effective vaccine, vaccinating high-risk individuals and their contacts may be a good strategy to limit transmission,” she says, adding that privacy is an important ethical principle that comes into play, as people with monkeypox would need to disclose their close contacts so that they could benefit from ring vaccination.
Rapid identification of cases and contacts—along with their cooperation—is essential for ring vaccination to be effective. Although mass vaccination also may work, the risk of infection to most of the population remains low while supply of the JYNNEOS vaccine is limited, says Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of medicine in the Infectious Disease Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Other strategies for preventing transmission
Ideally, the vaccine should be administered within four days of an exposure, but it’s recommended for up to 14 days. The WHO also advocates more widespread vaccination campaigns in the population segment with the most cases so far: men who engage in sex with other men.
The virus appears to be spreading in sexual networks, which differs from what was seen in previously reported outbreaks of monkeypox (outside of Africa), where risk was associated with travel to central or west Africa or various types of contact with individuals or animals from those locales. There is no evidence of transmission by food, but contaminated articles in the environment such as bedding are potential sources of the virus, Deresinski says.
Severe cases of monkeypox can occur, but “transmission of the virus requires close contact,” he says. “There is no evidence of aerosol transmission, as occurs with SARS-CoV-2, although it must be remembered that the smallpox virus, a close relative of monkeypox, was transmitted by aerosol.”
Deresinski points to the fact that in 2003, monkeypox was introduced into the U.S. through imports from Ghana of infected small mammals, such as Gambian giant rats, as pets. They infected prairie dogs, which also were sold as pets and, ultimately, this resulted in 37 confirmed transmissions to humans and 10 probable cases. A CDC investigation identified no cases of human-to-human transmission. Then, in 2021, a traveler flew from Nigeria to Dallas through Atlanta, developing skin lesions several days after arrival. Another CDC investigation yielded 223 contacts, although 85 percent were deemed to be at only minimal risk and the remainder at intermediate risk. No new cases were identified.
How much should we be worried
But how serious of a threat is monkeypox this time around? “Right now, the risk to the general public is very low,” says Scott Roberts, an assistant professor and associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine. “Monkeypox is spread through direct contact with infected skin lesions or through close contact for a prolonged period of time with an infected person. It is much less transmissible than COVID-19.”
The monkeypox incubation period—the time from infection until the onset of symptoms—is typically seven to 14 days but can range from five to 21 days, compared with only three days for the Omicron variant of COVID-19. With such a long incubation, there is a larger window to conduct contact tracing and vaccinate people before symptoms appear, which can prevent infection or lessen the severity.
But symptoms may present atypically or recognition may be delayed. “Ring vaccination works best with 100 percent adherence, and in the absence of a mandate, this is not achievable,” Roberts says.
At the outset of infection, symptoms include fever, chills, and fatigue. Several days later, a rash becomes noticeable, usually beginning on the face and spreading to other parts of the body, he says. The rash starts as flat lesions that raise and develop fluid, similar to manifestations of chickenpox. Once the rash scabs and falls off, a person is no longer contagious.
“It's an uncomfortable infection,” says Van Voorhis, the University of Washington School of Medicine professor. There may be swollen lymph nodes. Sores and rash are often limited to the genitals and areas around the mouth or rectum, suggesting intimate contact as the source of spread.
Symptoms of monkeypox usually last from two to four weeks. The WHO estimated that fatalities range from 3 to 6 percent. Although it’s believed to infect various animal species, including rodents and monkeys in west and central Africa, “the animal reservoir for the virus is unknown,” says Kanki, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor.
Too often, viruses originate in parts of the world that are too poor to grapple with them and may lack the resources to invest in vaccines and treatments. “This disease is endemic in central and west Africa, and it has basically been ignored until it jumped to the north and infected Europeans, Americans, and Canadians,” Van Voorhis says. “We have to do a better job in health care and prevention all over the world. This is the kind of thing that comes back to bite us.”