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New digital tools to transform climate-sensitive infectious disease modelling

Twenty-four research teams in 12 countries will receive a total of £22.7 million to develop new digital tools to respond to the emerging threat of climate-sensitive infectious diseases.

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Jane Bracher

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New digital tools to transform climate-sensitive infectious disease modelling
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We know climate change is having a profound effect on infectious diseases. Extreme weather events and warming temperatures are giving rise to infectious diseases and providing more opportunities for them to expand to new regions, putting the lives of billions of people at risk.

But what if we had early warning systems to predict the risk of disease outbreaks like cholera and dengue long before they happen? Or a tool that could estimate how changes to climate and land use will affect disease transmission? Or an app that could track the spread of diseases during natural disasters like floods?

If we knew more about when and where deadly disease outbreaks are likely to happen, policymakers could plan interventions to minimise their impact on communities that are most at risk.  

Our new funding could be the next step in making that a reality. 

What we're funding 

Last year, we launched a funding call to support the development of new open-source technology – technology that is available to the public – to respond to the emerging threat of climate-sensitive infections and improve disease modelling. 

The aim was to develop tools that use climate data to better understand and predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases, which could be used by policymakers and decision-makers to prepare and respond to potential outbreaks or changes in their distribution.

As part of this call, we’re now funding the development of 20 new tools across four categories: 

Modelling tools 

Tools to help investigate the impacts of climate on infectious disease-related risks. These will help identify locations and times when the risk of disease transmission increases to prevent and control disease outbreaks. 

Climate-informed mosquito-borne disease early warning systems 

Tools to investigate and predict the transmission risk of mosquito-borne diseases, with useful metrics to guide advanced resource allocation and intervention planning.

Early warning systems for other types of disease transmission

Tools to predict the transmission risk of climate-sensitive infectious diseases that are not mosquito-borne – an area that is lacking research – to inform interventions. This includes respiratory diseases (like asthma), foodborne diseases (like Salmonella infection) and waterborne diseases (like cholera). 

Foundational tools

Tools that can support and apply to a variety of problem areas, for example, modelling, data acquisition and data visualisation.

In addition to the projects awarded through the funding call, we are supporting several other projects in this space. These include:

  • A platform for arboviral risk prediction at the province and city levels in Thailand.
  • A platform for robust data analytics to predict dengue in Latin America.
  • The first-ever randomised control trial for the evaluation of a climate-informed early warning system for infectious diseases.
  • Methods to remove systematic errors in climate data to generate more targeted information of disease risk for specific areas.

Climate change and infectious diseases 

The data is warning us: up to 8.4 billion people could be at risk of diseases like dengue and malaria by the end of the century if emissions keep rising at current levels. And even in a best-case scenario, it would still be 6.1 billion people potentially threatened.

Tools that utilise data to predict and manage the spread of climate-sensitive diseases are becoming more crucial to minimise the risk of outbreaks.

The research behind the funding 

Funding for these research projects follows a Wellcome-commissioned study that identified technology gaps in global climate-sensitive infectious disease preparedness.

The study found there to be only 37 fully developed and named tools in papers published in the last ten years – a sign that this area of research is not receiving enough investment and support.

Of the technologies that do exist, the majority are for vector-borne diseases, with much less for respiratory, foodborne and waterborne diseases. There’s also a lack of global representation, as most of the tools have been created by North American and European institutions.

In addition, only a quarter of the tools were found to be useful for decision-makers with limited real-world benefits for communities.

This funding award has been designed to fill these gaps.

“Digital technologies such as numerical models and early warning systems are some of the most powerful and useful tools available for understanding and potentially mitigating the impacts of climate on infectious diseases," said Felipe Colón, Wellcome's Technology Lead.

"The Digital Technologies Development Award was a great opportunity to improve the field of climate-sensitive infectious disease modelling that could inform actions to reduce the global burden of climate-sensitive infectious diseases.”

How climate change affects vector-borne diseases

As climate change alters temperatures and weather patterns around the world, the risk of vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and Zika virus will increase. Here’s what that means for global health and what can be done to limit the damage.

The future of infectious disease and climate science 

While we already have some data to guide us, there is a lot we still don’t know about how infectious disease research and climate science intersect and how data can help inform policies and decision-making for practical action.

The tools we’re funding through this award provide an exciting opportunity to address some of those gaps. And in doing so, they can possibly transform preparations and responses to outbreaks of devastating diseases, potentially saving millions of lives.

“Digital technologies [...] are some of the most powerful and useful tools available for understanding and potentially mitigating the impacts of climate on infectious diseases.”

Felipe Colón

Technology Lead

Wellcome

Connect with Felipe:

We are funding other opportunities in this space that use data – particularly data centring the communities and people most impacted by climate change – to solve urgent health challenges. 

Find out more about our Data for Science and Health programme.

We’re funding vital research into the impact climate change has on human health around the world, at national, regional and global levels. Explore our current funding call:

Climate Impacts Awards: Unlocking urgent climate action by making the health effects of climate change visible