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Arnold School of Public Health

UofSC Big Data Health Science Center investigators receive $1.25million NIH grant to develop data-driven strategies in fighting COVID-19

June 19, 2020

Xiaoming Li (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior, Arnold School of Public Health) and Bankole Olatosi (Department of Health Services Policy and Management, Arnold School of Public Health), co-principal investigators of the UofSC Big Data Health Science Center (BDHSC) – one of the recent UofSC Excellence Initiatives – have been awarded a $1,252,550 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a state-wide data-driven system to fight COVID-19 in South Carolina. The multidisciplinary investigation team for this project also includes BDHSC faculty members from the Arnold School of Public Health (Jiajia Zhang), College of Arts and Sciences (Zhenlong Li), College of Engineering and Computing (Neset Hikmet and Jianjun Hu), and School of Medicine-Columbia (Sharon Weissman).

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – remains a present and growing national threat to millions of Americans, including many South Carolinians. The speed of transmission across the United States and its morbidity are particularly alarming. As clinicians and frontline health workers battle to save lives, it has become critically important to create a data environment that accelerates research as a response for precision health.

This two-year grant will support the team’s efforts to develop a database system via REDCap and a mobile application for collating surveillance, clinical, multi-omics and geospatial data on both COVID-19 patients and health workers treating COVID-19 patients in South Carolina. This data system will allow the investigators to examine the natural history of COVID-19, including transmission dynamics, disease progression, and geospatial visualization, and to identify important predictors of short- and long-term clinical outcomes of COVID-19 patients in South Carolina using machine learning algorithms.

These aims will be accomplished through a close partnership with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and other state agencies and stakeholders relevant to COVID-19. This project will also lead to the creation of a REDCap database and mobile app that collects relevant coalescing data in a timely fashion that leverages with statewide integrated data warehouse capabilities.  

“Today, the U.S. health system has an opportunity to leverage and deploy real-time multitudinal and multimodal data currently being collected for precision health,” Olatosi says. “The combination of such data with other data sources, such as social media data and geospatial data, holds great promise for accelerating research in understanding the natural history of the COVID-19 disease now and in the future.”

As evidenced by poor national health rankings, challenging rural geography and health professional shortages, South Carolina’s residents are already vulnerable to poor health. These additional challenges suggest that the impact of COVID-19 likely will be long lasting in the state. “This project is significant as it will build on a strong partnership between UofSC and DHEC and take advantage of COVID-19 surveillance, clinical, multi-omics and geospatial data to help us to understand and monitor transmission dynamics, natural history, virology and clinical outcomes,” Li says. “As a result of improved computational architecture and improved capabilities in data management and analytics software, we can now quickly build integrated multitudinal and multimodal datasets to support data annotation, reproducible analytics, and controlled-access archiving and sharing.”

"This is a great opportunity for South Carolina to learn more about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state and residents,” says DHEC STD/HIV/VH Division director Ali Mansaray, who is also collaborating with Li and Olatosi on a big data project to address HIV treatment gaps in South Carolina. “This research will allow us to seek answers to some of the most pressing questions on residents’ minds and lips, such as the direct and indirect impacts on all and different segments of the population, health service delivery and usage, direct and indirect disease and mortality patterns, among others. This also puts us at the forefront and cutting edge of inquiry about the pandemic and its role in our communities, even as these continue to unfold.”

Li, who is also the South Carolina SmartState Endowed Chair for Clinical Translational Research and the director of the SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality, credits the success of this NIH grant application to the strong support of the UofSC Excellence Initiative for the BDHSC – a campus-wide research entity with involvement of more than 40 faculty from 11 colleges and schools across the campus. The BDHSC currently has five content cores (i.e., electronic health records, social media, geospatial, genomic, and bio-nanomaterials) and two supporting hubs (i.e., technology and business).

In addition to this grant, the BDHSC faculty also secured a National Science Foundation RAPID grant for COVID-19 research, and are serving as principal investigators for 10 of the 42 COVID-19 projects recently funded by the UofSC Office of the Vice President for Research. “The strong commitment and support to big data science from UofSC leadership and the increased big data capacity at UofSC has made this and other COVID-19 projects highly feasible,” Li says.

“This major grant is a testimony to how public health faculty members can creatively work with faculty from multiple other disciplines across the campus as well as with state agencies to produce a rapid research-intensive response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School. “This project will also be a great demonstration of the power of big data generation and analytics for addressing significant health problems in the state of South Carolina. It’s impact for the state via the unique tools developed will reach well beyond COVID-19 into the future.”


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