Flu researcher brings team together to tackle COVID-19

June 12, 2020

Portrait of Henry Wan

Henry Wan | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond Life Sciences Center

Professor Henry Wan has studied flu viruses for years, and he can assure you, coronavirus is not the same. It’s trickier. Less predictable And for many, deadlier.

But there are insights scientists can glean from decades of research around the transmission of the flu. That’s why a team of Mizzou researchers is turning its collective attention to COVID-19.

The group recently received National Science Foundation RAPID funding to analyze how the Spanish Flu of 1918 impacted Missouri and determine how those transmission patterns might apply to today’s pandemic. Lisa Sattenspiel, chair of anthropology in MU’s College of Arts & Science, is the project’s principal investigator. Carolyn Orbann, an associate teaching professor of health science in the School of Health Professions, is a co-principal investigator.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Wan first brought this interdisciplinary group together last fall, well before COVID-19. The goal was to learn what other researchers had discovered about transmission of viruses and influenza vaccines, and to brainstorm ideas for research collaborations. This multidisciplinary team includes faculty members with expertise in health care, engineering, veterinary medicine, biology, mathematics, statistics and agriculture.

“With any science today, you need a much more interdisciplinary approach,” he said. “You need to understand a subject from a different point of view.”

Mizzou, Wan said, provided the perfect setting. The campus is home to colleges of engineering, arts and sciences, agriculture and veterinary medicine, a school of medicine and a hospital.

“Missouri has a very unique environment,” he said. “We can almost do anything here on this campus. During COVID, I brought the concept to the group and asked how we could use knowledge of the flu to look at this new challenge.”

Wan is one of two from engineering’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department to serve as senior personnel on the grant. Professor Giovanna Guidoboni is providing expertise on mathematical models for the group. Others on the NSF grant led by Sattenspiel include an epidemiologist, an anthropologist and a statistician.

EECS Contributions

Wan sees his role as a facilitator. He has a diverse background with joint appointments in engineering, the School of Medicine, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Bond Life Sciences Center. He has worked for the Centers for Disease Control. And he holds graduate degrees in veterinary medicine and computer science.

“I can help integrate different parts,” Wan said “I feel comfortable in the biology side, I also enjoy computer science. It is powerful to consider both the disease side and computational thinking.”

The latter is where Guidoboni comes in.

“My contribution is to complement the data analysis with some hypotheses on how behaviors might impact transmission,” she said. “If we reduce contact, if we accomplish social distancing through telemedicine or changing services, how do we expect the spread of COVID to change?”

Guidoboni, who has a joint appointment in the College of Arts and Science’s mathematics department, will ensure numbers are used in context. She will also strive to demonstrate details behind charts and models. A diagram of a flattened COVID-19 curve in a major city, for instance, might not reflect what’s happening in rural Missouri.

“The models I am developing have the goal of understanding why the curve is like that,” she said. “Is it because transmission is too high due to too much contact? Or is it because in a rural area there are higher incidents of cardiovascular diseases or less access to healthcare facilities? Models are not the truth; they are a simplification of reality. We put in our assumptions and we have predictions, but we need to go back and see if the data mirror what we thought. We need to ensure predictions are trustworthy and identify those that are not.”

Future Work

The NSF RAPID funding is allocated for a year, but the research team expects the group’s work to evolve beyond the project.

COVID-19 is not likely to disappear, meaning more research will be to study transmission, prevention and complications.

The current project could evolve into other bodies of research. Guidoboni, for instance, studies glaucoma and plans to further explore COVID-19’s impact on vision. COVID-19 also appears to impact cardiovascular health, which Guidoboni studies alongside EECS Professors Marjorie Skubic and James Keller.

“I can see this research going in other directions,” Guidoboni said. “The one-year grant gives us the opportunity to formalize our collaboration to continue in our respective research interests.”

And, of course, influenza will continue to evolve, providing ample opportunities for this team of researchers to continue analyzing transmission patterns and developing models that are comprehensive and accurate.

“This particular project is only one year, but we expect more to come,” Wan said. “I’m very excited to see where it leads.”

Read more about the NSF RAPID project here.

Read more about Wan’s work here.