New Model For Pandemic Disease Control Announced For U.S. Airpoirts

Pandemic experts have announced a new model for disease control that better takes into account the movement of people through airports throughout the United States, reports a press release from MIT Media Relations.

In past pandemic models, the roles of certain airports were overestimated while the roles of other airports were underestimated. For example, it was assumed that, of the travelers at the Honolulu airport, half would travel to San Francisco, California and the other half to Anchorage, Alaska. However, the Honolulu airport receives only 30 percent as much air traffic as the Kennedy International Airport in New York, meaning that the airports are not equal in the spread of a pandemic.

The new model for pandemic disease control is more realistic, taking into account actual travel patterns of individual fliers.

As Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Associate Professor in Energy Studies in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), comments about the updated pandemic model:

“Our work is the first to look at the spatial spreading of contagion processes at early times, and to propose a predictor for which ‘nodes’ — in this case, airports — will lead to more aggressive spatial spreading. The findings could form the basis for an initial evaluation of vaccine allocation strategies in the event of an outbreak, and could inform national security agencies of the most vulnerable pathways for biological attacks in a densely connected world.”

Previous pandemic models assumed a random, homogenous diffusion of travelers throughout airports. However, using cellphone data to model human mobility patterns and trace contagion processes in social networks, the researchers discovered that people do not travel randomly but tend to create patterns that can be replicated to figure out the movement of a pandemic.

According to graduate student Christos Nicolaides:

“The results from our model are very different from those of a conventional model that relies on the random diffusion of travelers … [and] similar to the advective flow of fluid. The advective transport process relies on distinctive properties of the substance that’s moving, as opposed to diffusion, which assumes a random flow. If you include diffusion only in the model, the biggest airport hubs in terms of traffic would be the most influential spreaders of disease. But that’s not accurate.”

The results of this study should help to better control the spread of disease through airports in the event of a pandemic.

For a look into the flow of people through airports in the United States, check out the following video from MIT News: