Epidemic Experts Congregate at Symposium

Scientists, journalists, and public officials discussed methods for preventing a variety of global epidemics, including infectious diseases and gun violence, at the Contagion symposium held at the Knafel Center on Friday.

Featuring three panels in total, the symposium primarily focused on novel methods for tracking epidemics and was hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“There are a lot of new tools from epidemiological research to combat these threats,” said Janet Rich-Edwards, an associate professor of medicine at the Medical School and the event's organizer.

The first session focused on research-based techniques to forecast infectious disease.

MIT Assistant Media Arts and Sciences Professor Kevin M. Esvelt discussed his research in the field of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats “gene drive” technology, which he first began in 2013. As a result of his research, Esvelt identified the possibility of editing DNA segments to alter wild populations of organisms.


Currently, he is working on a project which aims to prevent tick-borne disease. Eventually, he hopes to utilize his gene drive research to prompt scientists to take a more modern approach to research.

Scholars explicated the importance of forecasting epidemics in the second panel, called “Big Data”.

University of Nevada Professor James M. Wilson called for an organization akin to the National Weather Service for predicting infectious disease.

He said he has not found the current state of infectious disease forecasting to be adequate. “We’ve been playing games for decades and it’s very unfortunate,” he said.

C. Jessica Metcalf, another panelist and Princeton professor, discussed recent measles outbreaks and echoed Wilson’s call, envisioning a “global immunological observatory.”

The final panel focused on social epidemics, ranging from mental illness to the opioid crisis.

“Contagion, you think of as being a part of infectious disease epidemics,” said Rich-Edwards. “But we were interested in broadening that idea, or turning it on its head, to also understand contagion as the root of many social ills.”

One panelist, Yale professor Andrew Papachristos talked about using network science—models of complex phenomena—to study gun violence among civilians and police. In his research, he found that networks of police gun violence can be mapped into clusters, just as networks of non-violence can be mapped into clusters.

Rich-Edwards said the symposium showcased research methods that were new to many of the expert attendees.

“I learned about new methods of disease forecasting. I heard a really heartening call for open science and transparency that particularly came from the young researchers,” she said.

In a speech at the symposium’s conclusion, Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, urged the media to “put biology first” when reporting epidemics.


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