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UC Berkeley partners with Kaiser Permanente to launch the California Center for Outbreak Readiness

Joseph Lewnard is co-PI for landmark $17.5 million CDC grant to boost U.S. capacity to respond to infectious disease outbreaks

Kaiser Permanente Southern California and UC Berkeley School of Public Health are launching a new center to develop advanced modeling methods to address disease outbreaks and prepare the nation for future pandemics, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The California Center for Outbreak Readiness, dubbed C-CORE, will be co-led by Dr. Sara Tartof, a research scientist in the Department of Research & Evaluation at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, and Dr. Joseph Lewnard, associate professor of epidemiology at Berkeley Public Health. Dr. Isabel Rodriguez-Barraquer, an associate professor in the department of medicine at UCSF, is a co-investigator on the project. The team also includes Dr. Parag Mahale, a former CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer now based at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, as well as Berkeley Public Health Professor Alan Hubbard, chair of the division of biostatistics, and Alejandro Schuler, an assistant professor in residence in the division of biostatistics.

C-CORE will be one of five “centers for innovation” in the CDC’s Outbreak Analytics and Disease Modeling Network, a $245 million initiative to overhaul U.S. pandemic preparedness and response infrastructure. The center will support the development of new analytical methods, tools, and platforms for modeling efforts that will ultimately be used to inform public health decisions.

“One of the most important lessons from COVID-19 is that we need better analytics and modeling in real time to inform the public, practitioners, and decision makers at all levels in times of public health emergencies,” said Dr. Michael C. Lu, dean of Berkeley Public Health. “Joe Lewnard is truly one of the world’s top experts on outbreak analytics and disease modeling, and I am so proud that he will be co-leading one of five innovation centers to help overhaul our nation’s pandemic preparedness and response infrastructure.”

Dr. Lewnard and Dr. Tartof have partnered in COVID-related studies throughout the pandemic. Their prior work has helped CDC to understand the threat posed by the Omicron variant, as well as the effectiveness of countermeasures such as the antiviral drug Paxlovid.

“This work arises from our team’s success in addressing some of the gaps that became apparent in surveillance for COVID and other infectious diseases, drawing on the strength of Kaiser Permanente Southern California as a comprehensive health care delivery system,” Lewnard said. “Collaborating with Sara Tartof and investigators at Kaiser Permanente Southern California has been among the most fruitful experiences of my career, and I’m thrilled that C-CORE will enable us to build on what we have started.”

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on challenges in infectious disease modeling, from the inadequacies of data captured through public health surveillance to the time-consuming processes of launching research studies and coordinating data-sharing agreements. The fragmented nature of the U.S. health care delivery system added to the challenge.

U.S. public health officials frequently reached out to healthcare organizations to request their data, which often offered more timely insights into the pandemic than data available through traditional public health surveillance systems. Requests for individual data, however, butted up against the obligations of health care organizations to protect patient privacy and data security.

“We want to build a new model for how health care organizations and public health officials can collaborate—a model that respects the boundaries health care organizations have on sharing data,” said Tartof. “Ultimately, we need a scalable solution that supports quick responses to public health emergencies, and that means understanding what will make organizations comfortable participating.”

Lewnard said he hoped C-CORE, and the new CDC network, will resolve past problems with real-time analysis, so that the U.S. can better leverage data on emerging pathogens and generate reliable models to inform public health actions. Kaiser Permanente of Southern California provides end-to-end clinical services for 4.7 million people of diverse backgrounds, Lewnard said, making it an ideal setting for the proposed work.