Studying Epidemics in Virtual Worlds

NIH researchers are using supercomputers to track the spread of diseases in virtual worlds to help predict what will happen in the real world

A day after news reports about an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, health officials in Allegheny County, Pa., huddled to discuss contingency plans. How should they respond if the virus came to their part of the world? By closing schools? With widespread vaccinations? To test different courses of action, they turned to computer scientists who had built a working model of the county. "It helps come up with recommendations of when and how to intervene," says Dr. Ron Voorhees, chief of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Allegheny County Health Dept.

This is the first time Voorhees has had such technological support. A team at the University of Pittsburgh had built a virtual world, similar to Second Life or SimCity, with the county's 1.3 million residents represented by digital characters. It ran through 15 scenarios, with a variety of government reactions. Ultimately, the county avoided a serious outbreak, but Voorhees says it was well prepared.

In recent years public-health officials have turned to computer scientists for aid in fighting a variety of infectious diseases. Techies help harness the growing amount of data people create each day, through Google searches, cell-phone calls, and the like, so officials can detect potential problems faster than before. Google (GOOG), for example, tracks the number of searches for "flu" and related terms and reports the results to the government. IBM (IBM) donated to researchers and governments, including Mexico, a program it created that can simulate the outbreak of a pandemic flu in more than 100 cities.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, an assistant professor of medicine, works on the effort with virtual worlds. His team plugs in real data—infections and deaths in different regions, say—and then crafts simulations. It uses Census Bureau data to create a digital representative of each person in the U.S., with details down to a person's age, location, and job. Lee works under the auspices of a National Institutes of Health project called Midas, short for Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study.

The biggest decision for health officials, says Lee, is when to close schools and offices because that causes "a significant economic burden." In any case, when virtual workplaces and schools are closed, digital citizens don't necessarily stay home. Some still go for walks or to the mall, where they might catch or pass on a virus, just like in the real world. "Not even [virtual people] will all do what they're told," says Lee.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.