Dr. Jay Varma Receives Grant to Study COVID-19 Disease Surveillance

Dr. Jay Varma, a professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, has received a six-month, $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assess how countries around the world have been monitoring and reporting COVID-19 infections and outcomes during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic heightened awareness of the weaknesses of infectious disease surveillance systems worldwide,” said Dr. Varma, who is also a director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response, which engages investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell’s Ithaca campus in collaborative research. “For example, there were many variations in the reporting of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and data was not always integrated with other essential information, such as vaccination status or laboratory testing results.”

“Our project will identify opportunities and challenges in integrating, analyzing and publicly reporting disease surveillance data at the local, regional and national levels to inform how we can collectively improve it the next time a pandemic occurs,” he added.  

Dr. Varma’s grant proposal stemmed from discussions with colleagues from his previous positions in public service before joining Weill Cornell Medicine in 2021. After spending more than two decades at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including assignments in Thailand, China and Ethiopia, Dr. Varma most recently served as senior advisor for public health to former New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. In this role, he advised the mayor on the city’s policies and practices to control COVID-19 and organized its testing, tracing and vaccination campaigns.

Dr. Varma and his team, which includes co-investigator Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, an associate professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, and their colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, will assess current disease surveillance systems in World Health Organization (WHO) Member States across all regions of the world by analyzing government websites reporting COVID-19 data since January 2020. They will seek to identify factors associated with the timeliness, completeness and availability of data and evaluate whether data were effectively integrated for driving public health responses. They will also consider economic, political and social factors that may account for differences in how information was reported.

Additionally, the researchers will interview public health officials and local academic partners from countries around the world, to gather insights on factors that assisted or hindered data collection, management and sharing.

“I’m excited to receive this grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” Dr. Varma said. “Integrated disease surveillance is critical for driving public health policy during pandemics. We hope our findings will help countries and the WHO, and possibly set the foundation for building an international consortium of academic institutions that can assist with future pandemic efforts.” 

This article originally appeared in the WCM Newsroom. 

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