The country is under attack. Over the summer, a virus that had never made landfall within the continental United States silently began to infect people in Florida, spread from person to person by mosquitoes. Called Chikungunya, (CHIKV) its name is a Makonde word which means “that which bends up.” While it’s rarely fatal, it can cause debilitating joint pain, including chronic pain that can last for years even after people regain their health.
Aside from the personal misery the disease can cause, authorities have no way to map the potential spread of the virus, a situation that leaves the government and health organizations largely in the dark when trying to fight this emerging health crisis.
To help organize a defense against this potential epidemic, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has issued the CHIKV Challenge, asking teams to come up with an accurate model to forecast the spread of the disease in the United States and the Caribbean, where CHIKV is already widely spreading. Models and predictions will be compared to actual CHIKV infection reports over the next six months to check for accuracy. The challenge is open to anyone, and winning teams can earn huge cash awards up to $150,000. But teams will need to hurry, as the first month’s prediction is due on Sept. 1.
The challenge is led by DARPA Program Manager Matt Hepburn, an Army colonel who has spent most of his career as an infectious diseases physician. Hepburn explained that almost every case of CHIKV in the United States has been from travelers who are infected elsewhere and then diagnosed once they arrive back home.
But in August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that four people living in Florida who had not been traveling contracted the disease, meaning they were exposed to CHIKV from a mosquito bite. Unlike similar diseases, like West Nile virus, that are spread by mosquitoes that often pick it up after biting infected animals, CHIKV is only transmitted through mosquitoes that have previously bitten an infected human. But with 640 known cases of the disease living in people who have brought it back to the U.S., there are quite a few potential targets that could cause CHIKV to spread.
Hepburn said he would like to see people who are not normally involved with combating infectious diseases participate in the challenge, since they might provide an innovative modeling solution not previously considered. “We are looking for a creative solution outside of the public health disciplines,” Hepburn said. “Perhaps someone like a meteorologist who makes accurate weather predictions or someone who works in applied mathematics can present the most accurate model.”
DARPA has fast-tracked the challenge because it considers CHIKV an active threat requiring a working model be put in place soon to predict its spread. In addition, Hepburn said he wants to reward teams based on both accuracy and speed, with accuracy checked each month against the actual reported number of cases.
Hepburn said he is excited about the CHIKV challenge because traditional modeling uses historical data to try and match results, whereas with CHIKV, almost nothing is known about its potential to spread. Models will likely need to take into account mosquito populations, life cycles, the climate and the number of international travelers in an area to predict what is actually happening.
“What we hope is that we energize interest in the topic,” he said. “And when we find people who are successful, we want to highlight that success.”
Hepburn said he was inspired to create the CHIKV challenge after seeing the good results CDC had last year with its Influenza Challenge. He hopes the DARPA challenge will see similar success and participation, with results reaching beyond the CHIKV virus. One big question Hepburn wants to answer after the challenge is whether the most successful CHIKV spread model can also be applied to other diseases.
So, anyone looking to help combat a growing threat to national security and who wants to pick up $150,000 should join the CHIKV challenge. But hurry, the first prediction is due just a week from now.