Viral pandemics are one of the greatest risks to humanity. Despite taking giant leaps in technology and science, we are more vulnerable today than we were 100 years ago. As COVID-19 has made painfully obvious, viruses can travel farther and faster than ever, spreading across the globe in weeks, making the rapid detection and containment of diseases critical. Yet we currently have no systematic way of detecting and tracking outbreaks. Disease diagnostics and surveillance practices are outdated, and tests for many viruses do not exist, even in developed countries. The current global pandemic tragically corroborates a 2019 Global Health Security Index report, which found that across 195 countries, not a single one was fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic. As a result, outbreaks are often only detected once too many people become ill, and this is typically too late to stop an epidemic.
The African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and partners, including Dimagi, Fathom, and MassDesign, have a bold plan to get ahead of pandemic outbreaks, by building and deploying Sentinel. This pandemic preemption system will not only detect viral threats in real time but help stop them before they spread. Sentinel will use a three-part approach to detect viruses, connect data systems, and empower the healthcare community, allowing us to respond to emerging viral threats in real time, wherever they arise. Using simple point-of-care tests and others that can simultaneously look for hundreds of different viruses, healthcare workers will be able to identify high priority viruses within an hour, any known human virus within a day, and previously unknown viruses within a week. Using mobile applications and advanced dashboards, this information will be shared across the public health community in real time.
Leveraging ultra-sensitive genomic and CRISPR technology, the ACEGID and Broad teams are developing powerful tests that can detect virtually any pathogen. For example, one test, SHERLOCK uses a simple paper strip to detect viruses, making it suitable for use in even the most remote areas with minimal equipment. Another test, CARMEN, requires a lab but can test for hundreds of known viruses simultaneously. Through the Audacious investment, the team will refine and mass-produce these products. In parallel, they will develop an information system to continuously collect, integrate, and share viral surveillance data, and empower the entire public health community - from frontline workers to national authorities - to deploy Sentinel first in West and Central Africa, then anywhere in the world. By unifying these tools into a coherent system, for the first time, we will be able to detect and prevent pandemics on the ground before they start.
ACEGID and Broad have implemented advanced technologies, data-sharing systems, and partner-based approaches to battling viral pathogens for more than a decade. They have consistently demonstrated the power of leading-edge tools, such as the use of ultrasensitive genomic technologies in the containment of diseases such as monkeypox, and yellow fever. They were at the forefront of the Ebola, Zika, and Lassa fever outbreaks. Their Sentinel partners Dimagi, Fathom, and MassDesign, are world-leaders in healthcare technology, data analytics and visualization, and architecture. The team is building trust to unite a wide range of collaborators, which they will leverage to deploy Sentinel first across West and Central Africa, and subsequently across the globe.
Christian is Director of the World Bank-funded African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) and a Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics, both at Redeemer’s University, Nigeria. He completed his postdoctoral training at Harvard University, and his research focuses on the genomics of infectious diseases. Christian diagnosed the first case of Ebola in Nigeria in 2014 and worked closely with Nigerian health authorities in the successful containment of the Ebola outbreak. Using cutting-edge approaches, he led an international consortium that discovered two new viruses (EKV-1 and EKV-2) in Ekpoma, Nigeria. His team sequenced the first genome of the SARS-Cov-2, causing COVID-19 in Africa within 72 hours of receiving the sample. His accolades include the Merle A. Sande Health Leadership Award, the Award of Excellence in Research from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities; and the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) Africa Prize in 2019 for his seminal work on infectious diseases genomics in Africa.
Pardis is a Professor at Harvard University, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Her computational genomic lab has contributed to several fields, including human evolutionary biology, viral sequencing, information theory, rural disease surveillance, and education efforts in West Africa. Her team has contributed to responses to the outbreaks of Lassa, Ebola, and Zika among others. Pardis completed her undergraduate degree at MIT, her graduate work at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and her medical degree, summa cum laude, from Harvard Medical School as a Soros Fellow. She was also honored as TIME Magazine’s 2014 “Person of the Year” as one of the Ebola fighters, and as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential people in 2015.
Sentinel will create critical outbreak surveillance, share this bold plan that will protect the world from future deadly viral outbreaks.
Scientific endeavors to better understand SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have progressed rapidly. Within weeks of the virus emerging in humans, scientists had already identified it and sequenced the virus’s genome, giving researchers a target on which to train potential vaccines and treatments.
Recent experiences with Ebola are fresh in peoples’ minds across West and Central Africa, as are those with TB and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. As a result, African countries understand the need for regional coordination in overcoming public health challenges.
Molecular biologist Christian Happi is working around the clock to get testing available throughout the continent.