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Scouting for Signs of Pandemic

WORKING OVERSEAS with foreign partners, U.S. agencies have had success spotting dangerous disease outbreaks long before they could grow to epidemic scale, from Rift Valley Fever in East Africa last spring to a later appearance of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the former case, traditional, clinically based biosurveillance uncovered the outbreak. The first indication of the latter outbreak, however, came not from blood tests and DNA analysis but through monitoring of social phenomena on the ground, coupled with computer-aided analysis.

The technique was developed by Project Argus—the event-detection and tracking collaboration between Georgetown University’s Imaging Science and Information Center (ISIS), the U.S. intelligence community, and MITRE Corp.—which became fully operational in June after three years of development.

Dr. James M. Wilson V, director of the ISIS Division of Integrated Biodefense, recently told members of Congress that Project Argus has succeeded in detecting a tipping point where disease has begun to spread in at least two other notable cases: the spread of the H5N1 avian flu from China into Russia, and a minor 2007 incidence of hoof-and-mouth disease that erupted in the United Kingdom.

While the program’s funding source precludes its operation within the U.S., Project Argus has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which may sponsor a domestic version during this fiscal year, Wilson said.

Like other U.S. biosurveillance efforts, Project Argus grew from collaboration among disparate government agencies. More than a decade ago, Wilson worked with the Army, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a program designed to spot the weather conditions favorable for an Ebola epidemic in Africa.

Later, Project Sentinel sought to provide U.S. hospitals with real-time information about which potential diseases a patient could have been exposed to during overseas trips.

But Wilson said that under either approach, U.S. public health authorities would be left behind by a “hyper-communicable” disease that somehow found its way into the United States.

Project Argus looks at reports of disease outbreaks, but it also goes further to include far less-obvious signs, such as indications of social disruptions from school closings to sudden, mass movements of people. The data may come from official foreign government reports, monitoring of local media, or other sources.

For trained analysts like the program’s experts, the social responses to a disease outbreak “are readily identifiable through a granular review of local sources of information,” Wilson said.

The program’s analytical functions, developed in collaboration with Virginia-based MITRE, apply social disruption and event evolution theory using modeling systems from NASA, NOAA, and the University of Maryland.

The system fields more than a million pieces of information and generates an average of 200 reports each day. Significant reports are classified as advisories, watches, or warnings. The program’s “watchboard” is open to 215 users from 100 organizations, Wilson told Congress.

Project Argus is currently funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center, but it falls under the Intelligence Community’s Open Source Center.

The program has even yielded benefits beyond disease detection; such as after the 2004 Asian tsunami, when leadership of U.S. Pacific Command relied heavily on the then-new system to bolster situational awareness.