Global relationships aid Penn State faculty disease expert on COVID-19

Penn State Professor of Biology Matthew Ferrari wakes up early these days. He has to — Ferrari co-chairs the Public Health and Science Assessment task group responsible for advising senior University leadership as they continue to guide Penn State’s strategic response to the pandemic. Several times a week, Ferrari is studying and tracking current scientific evidence and data, not just in the United States, but from around the globe, as well.

“It’s important to look to partners around the world for context,” said Ferrari, an infectious disease expert in Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “Many of them are ahead of us in timescale, so it allows us to see where we might be going.”

According to Ferrari, “Where we might be going?” is a complex question. Each country’s situation is different; some took drastic steps early, while others were more lax. The response even varied within countries. Some towns in Italy, for example, took drastic steps to combat the spread of the virus early; others were slower to respond. "Both are useful cases for us,” said Ferrari.

A history with global disease

Prior to the COVID pandemic, Ferrari had spent years researching the prevention of outbreaks. His work, mostly focused on vaccine-preventable diseases, had him looking at low- and middle-income countries around the world, particularly in Africa. Ferrari is a quantitative epidemiologist, meaning he concentrates on methods for quantifying the amount of disease in a landscape, and how that disease is spread across populations.

“I like to tell people I have a Ph.D. in advanced counting,” Ferrari said. “Counting in this case is actually really hard — but it’s essential to public health functioning.”

There are three aspects that Ferrari focuses on when looking at outbreaks: 1) figuring out the burden of disease, I.e. how much is out there, how many have it, how many are dying from it; 2) evaluation — identifying trends, interventions, and gaps; and 3) forecasting and prediction.

Ferrari explained that people in his line of work look at a few different possible scenarios and are guided by an intervention mindset: Of what we could do, which path is best?

Predicting an outbreak is not like predicting the weather, said Ferrari. If a hurricane is predicted, and people are evacuated, the hurricane still happens. “If people take our recommendations and the outbreak stops, we don’t see what would have happened otherwise,” he said. “Basically, if people tell us we overreacted, we know we did our job.”

Partnerships across the globe

Through his work with the World Health Organization and other global institutions, Ferrari has formed links with colleagues across the globe — most of whom currently are focused on COVID-19. One such colleague works in the Chinese CDC and is on the ground in Wuhan as part of the outbreak response. Ferrari checks in with him multiple times throughout the week.

“I’m asking, ‘what are you learning, what’s the lesson coming from there, what should I be passing along?’” Ferrari said. “But it goes beyond that. We ask about each other’s kids and pets. I check in to make sure he’s doing okay. And recently, he’s been doing the same for me.”

Most of Ferrari’s contacts have been collegial, formed through meetings through the WHO, academic conferences, and his work with the CDC here in the United States.

“One of the most important roles of an organization like the WHO is to build relationships during lower-stress times,” said Ferrari. “They help give us space to form relationships and trust, and to learn each other’s technical languages.”

In addition to the WHO, Ferrari also works closely with several international academic institutions. Among these are the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Imperial College in the U.K.; as well as Stellenbosch University in South Africa, where he co-advises a graduate student.

“Many of these institutions are at the forefront of the response and modeling, especially in terms of modeling the outbreak in sub-saharan Africa,” said Ferrari. “Working with them has been incredibly insightful.”

Ferrari also works with Doctors Without Borders, The Vaccine Alliance, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He spends a large part of his day communicating with international colleagues and credits his strong connections now, with his global work in “peacetime.”

Post-COVID-19

Regardless of how long the situation lasts, it will have lasting impact on global, national, and local levels.

“On a larger scale, it really showed the strategic vulnerabilities in the healthcare system,” said Ferrari. “Not having easy access to care, especially preventative care, has left us vulnerable. If we fail to learn from that, we’ll be just as vulnerable the next time around.”

Ferrari also sees opportunities for the University to learn and grow from lessons learned during the pandemic. “On an external level, as a university, we have a really powerful role in terms of serving the community,“ he added. “I think we need to continue to take that role seriously moving forward."