York mathematician leads national team to map SARS outbreak


Prediction and control of infectious diseases could be improved now that a national team led by York’s Jianhong Wu (below, right) has been assembled to map the spread of SARS.

He took on this important project, because he knew he could count on support from the Office of Research & Innovation. Once he had that guarantee, he quickly pulled together a team of 12 mathematicians, virologists, infectious disease experts and leading public health scientists for the project. Five, including himself, are from York.

Wu is Canada Research Chair of Applied Mathematics and an expert in mathematical modeling of ecosystems and infectious diseases in animal populations. He was approached by Arvind Gupta, scientific director of MITACS (Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems), a federally funded National Centre of Excellence, to lead the project, called Transmission Dynamics and Spatial Spread of Infectious Diseases: Modeling, Prediction and Control.

Wu and his team will develop mathematical models and techniques to track the SARS outbreak from its latency and incubation period to its global spread. They will use complex computer simulations to predict the pattern of spread and make recommendations for public health policy. The map of the transmission of SARS could serve as a model for the spread – and ultimate control – of other infectious diseases, says Wu.

Members of the team have already started building comparison models of the spread of anthrax, HIV, malaria and schistosomiasis. Their lab is virtual and they are already exchanging ideas over a secure Web site.

Before he agreed to accept the project, Wu went to Ron Pearlman (left), Chair of the Strategy and Planning Group for Health Research. The group is one of four institutional planning bodies created by Stan Shapson, VP Research and Innovation, to increase external support for York researchers in health, international, sustainability, and cultural and entertainment research. These planning bodies also aim to streamline committee procedures for the administration of research – in other words, free researchers to focus on their work.

In Wu’s case, Pearlman and York’s Marcia Rioux, also a member of the strategic planning committee, were able to help Wu build his team, generate publicity, guarantee institutional support for the project and offer other “intangibles” that researchers need to proceed.

“In order for him to say yes, he needed the kind of support we’re able to transparently give and give quickly,” said Pearlman. “That’s in large part because of the structure Stan Shapson has set up through these strategic planning groups. York was a welcoming home for this project.”

The York researchers on the team are as follows.

  • Marcia Rioux, Chair of the School of Health Policy and Management at York and director of the York Centre for Health Studies. A renowned health policy expert, she has advised governments around the world, international NGOs and UN agencies.
  • Vincent Tao, Canada Research Chair in Geomatics and director of York’s Geospatial Information & Communication Technology Lab, is a pioneer in geographical information systems and remote sensing. He is currently developing a smart sensing software that can quickly access and analyze a vast and varied amount of data and will be an indispensable tool for responding to emergencies and managing disasters, among other things.
  • Huaiping Zhu, a mathematics professor who is associated with York’s Laboratory for Industrial & Applied Mathematics. His research interests include modeling and analysis in ecology and epidemiology. His most recent work involves the dynamical transmission of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus.
  • Neal Madras, a mathematics professor whose research interests include probability theory and mathematical models in biology. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

“Public health scientists will provide the data that is key to ensure the viability of the mathematical modeling, and geospatial mapping of the data will enable us to track the spread of the disease more effectively,” said Rioux. “In the present SARS situation where so much is still unknown, mathematical modeling and analysis can also help to rule out certain hypotheses and to speed up the process of finding effective test and prevention measures.”

There has been active interplay between mathematics and epidemiology since the earliest days of epidemiological modeling, and striking successes, such as the Ross malaria model of 1909 and the applications of mathematical analysis for gonorrhea control. Useful applications of mathematical modeling of infectious diseases also include the design of immunization strategies and control programs.

“Our previous work within the healthcare field has proven that mathematical modeling and analysis play a key role in the effective control and treatment of diseases,” said Gupta of MITACS.

Other team members include five Canadians and two Americans:

  • Martin Jack Blaser, King Professor of Internal Medicine and Chairman and Professor of Microbiology at New York University School of Medicine
  • Sten Ardal, director, Central East Health Information Partnership in Toronto
  • Abba Gumel, Institute of Industrial Mathematical Sciences, University of Manitoba
  • Shigui Ruan, Department of Mathematics, Dalhousie University
  • Beni Sahai, chief virologist, Cadham Provincial Laboratory in Winnipeg
  • Pauline van den Driessche, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Victoria
  • Glenn Webb, an eminent applied mathematician at Vanderbilt University.