Innovations to face disease emergence in the era of climate change: from research to technological development

Retrospective on the 2023 MOOD Scientific Conference

On June 27th, 2023 the MOOD project held its annual Scientific Conference in Helsinki, hosted by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). Ninety scientists and policy-makers participated, initiating innovative and fruitful discussions around the factors leading to emerging disease outbreaks, and the role of data science in monitoring and response, in a context of global and climate change.

Over the course of one information-packed day, we heard from twelve technical experts in their field on a range of topics clustered around the main issues driving innovation in the One Health field.

One of MOOD’s supporters, Erja Heikkinen, member of the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture opened the floor with very engaging words about the importance of bridging the gap between researchers and decision-makers, and the systemic changes needed to face challenges like the mitigation of climate change or the loss of biodiversity.

‘’We are at a critical juncture, facing a multitude of challenges, and we have to tackle them together. As researcher, you can enable decision-makers to prepare and find systematic solutions, both locally and globally.[…] We are in this together, we, civil servants, are here to help you to do your work but you also help us to do our work!” (Erja HEIKKINEN – Finish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture)

After the opening session, Annapaola Rizzoli, head of the Applied Ecology Unit of the FEM Research and Innovation Center, and coordinator of the MOOD Work Package on disease intelligence, took over and provided an overview of the emerging challenges the Public Health sector is currently facing. 

These challenges were addressed by  Hilppa Gregow, from FMI, who described the myriad of ways in which climate change and human health are intertwined and affect one another.

“Climate change is not only an environmental concern but also a significant threat to health” (Hilppa Gregow – FMI)

She also explained that climate change-induced effects on health create various needs, such as the development of health and social care units; the improvement of citizens’ awareness of the health risks posed by this phenomenon; the utilization of the environment and health data to follow up the effects of weather and climate; and the planning of urban areas i.e. buildings, green spaces, etc. In summary, mitigation strategies have to be set in place, as ‘’The later we do this mitigation effort, the more we will need to adapt’’.

One way to mitigate Public Health risks could be rewilding–essentially, to allow or encourage formerly peri-urban spaces or farmland to return to a natural ecosystem capable of supporting wildlife and biodiversity. This particularly new concept amongst Public Health and environmental management practitioners was presented by Prof. Frauke Ecke from the BE-PREP project. 

During her intervention, she mentioned the multiple mitigation possibilities but also highlighted the limitations, and especially the drawbacks that transporting animals from rewilded areas pose as they get into contact with humans However, this effect could also be mitigated by increasing biodiversity in these spaces, given that diversification can lead to higher in non-competent hosts, thus reducing infection rates.

‘’To think of rewilding as the solution to all problems would be naive. We need to ask, which components of biodiversity should we focus on? If we rewild, how long will it take to get to a functional ecosystem? This should determine the duration of European projects, and which systems to prioritize.” (Frauke Ecke – BE-PREP)

Once the environmental context was laid out, sessions chaired by Celine Gossner (ECDC), Jennifer Hutchison of WOAH, and Emlie Peron (WHO) delved into the initiatives demonstrating promise in the fields of early pathogen detection, risk assessment using genomic data, epidemic intelligence, and implementing the One Health framework for disease surveillance and pandemic preparedness.

To assess risks more rapidly, pathogen detection and understanding, of species distribution is key. Following the Introductory session, Prof. Olli Vapalahti, from Helsinki University,  presented a joint study on the Tick-Borne Encephalitis virus, and the phylogeography of the species in Finland in recent years. He provided a detailed view of the virus itself, as well as its complex transmission and spread mechanisms (linked to co-feeding, the ecological cycle, etc.), and eventually the risk it poses. According to Prof. Vapalahti, this disease is mainly influenced by climate factors. 

Technological development in favor of Epidemic Intelligence and disease surveillance

When we talk about supporting risk assessment and Epidemic Intelligence (EI), technologies and, in particular, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can bring a lot to the table. This was the central topic during the intervention of Lucas Busani and Mathieu Roche, MOOD partners from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità and Tetis – Cirad, respectively. The two speakers explored the topic and its challenges and made a presentation on the case of Avian Influenza. They explained the difficulty they encountered when asking AI algorithms to identify quantitative information or labeling information for an eventual automatic extraction of data, which could improve overall data access. More importantly, methods and results need to be as transparent as possible, when using such technologies. Black boxes need to be avoided when giving information in order to improve readiness and response to decision-makers since they also need to understand how it was obtained.

How the aforementioned decision-making process has evolved was later explained by Athanasios Lapatinas, from DG HERA, an organization focused on strengthening Europe’s ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to cross-border health emergencies, by ensuring the availability of and access to key medical countermeasures (MCM) and looking at the value chain as a whole.

“Of course, in simulation and forecast modeling and complex activities, the challenge is always the data, and specifically its collection. This is why we developed the Joint Industrial Cooperation Forum, to ensure medical countermeasures, which are at the core of the mandate of HERA.’’ (Anathanos Lapatinas – DG HERA)

When facing these challenges also comes the necessity to work together with all sectors of society. Likewise, to implement a “One Health” approach in the innovations and chosen practices. As Cat McGillycuddy from the UK Health Security Agency described, it is a long winding road towards effective OneHealth collaborative surveillance. It is not a far-off destination, as progress has already been made in terms of applications, drive, and technologies. However, other issues like political support from the top of office down still need to be improved.

“How do we start to mitigate this political blockage? Everyone needs to become an advocate for OneHealth and talk about all the benefits of the OneHealth approach and surveillance. Because it shows a greater context of the problems, at the medical, environmental, animal, and plant health scale. It shows for example the vulnerabilities of mitigating certain infectious diseases. This allows for decision makers to make better-informed decisions.” (Cat McGillycuddy – UK HSA)

In order to combat future emerging infectious disease threats in a changing climate, research, collaborations, and innovations are at the core of the solutions. The sooner the Mood platform is released, the more resources will be available to overcome some of the current shortcomings. Having a tool that allows access to covariates and data, with epidemic intelligence data, and disease risk maps in Europe and beyond is crucial. Its co-development is one of the main originalities of the MOOD project and was the focus of the second day of this gathering at the Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki. 

One event, two very special highlights: a life achievement and a poster award

A very first edition of the MOOD Lifetime Achievement Award

Conference attendees were invited to a lovely and authentic Finnish dinner at the Ravintola Saaristo on a small island off the Helsinki coast. While enjoying a delicious smoked Nordic salmon, policy-makers, veterinarians, data scientists, and other experts of the OneHealth sector shared insights on the day and caught up after almost a year since the last MOOD event. 

MOOD Partners and End-Users, Ravintola Saaristo, Helsinki, 27th June 2023

To cap off the day, with the backdrop of the North Sea behind them, the MOOD project leaders Elena Arsevska, Timothée Dub, and Sylvie Laurens, as well as Annapaola Rizzoli, awarded the first Lifetime Achievement Award to Professor Heikki Henntonen, in honor of his outstanding contribution to the study of the population ecology of small mammals, and the ecology and evolution of rodent-borne parasites and pathogens. Prof. Henntonen is internationally recognized as a scientific leader at the highest level, with over 300 refereed highly cited international articles published. He is a Professor Emeritus of Forest Zoology at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (LUKE), an Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki, a full member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, and President of the Finnish Mammal Society, among many other distinctions. 

Professor Heikki Henntonen, Helsinki, 27th June 2023

The MOOD Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes a career of scientific excellence but also the human dimension of the candidate in terms of passion for work, the attitude toward colleagues, friendship, generosity, the ability to cooperate in a team, support other’s work without requiring any personal benefit or even remuneration and, in general, the respect for ethics and social rules.

A second edition for a first-class winner of the MOOD Poster Award

On the last day of MOOD’s Finnish gathering, after a piece of chocolate cake and a debrief on the very fruitful sessions of the past days, Elena Arsevska picked up the microphone to announce the results of this year’s MOOD Poster Award.

This year, 6 posters on the topics of TBE, EBS, and EI were displayed and presented to all the attendees during the breaks. Thanks to her beautiful design, the high scientific content of her work, her presentation, and the overall feel of her poster, Francesca Dagostin was appointed winner of the 2023 MOOD Poster Award! Congratulations to her and all her co-authors!

From left to right; Annapaola Rizzoli (FEM), Timothee Dub (THL), Francesca Dagostin (FEM), Valentina Tagliapietra (FEM), Giovanni Marini (FEM), William Wint (ERGO)

Learn more about the winning poster : 

TBE is a growing PH concern in Europe, and its viral circulation is being maintained both by ticks and their vertebrate hosts. Given the ongoing global biodiversity loss, it is crucial to assess the role played by biodiversity in TBE risk mitigation. In this multiscale study, Francesca Dagostin and al. used habitat richness as a proxy for biodiversity and found proof of a buffer effect of high habitat richness on the presence of TBE human cases.

Additional resources

  • Would you like to go back to the sessions? You can find most of the presentations used during the sessions of the Scientific Conference on this folder
  • Would you like to dive into the topics of Rewilding, Phylogeography, Scaling of qualitative data and OneHealth surveillance? Stay tuned for the release of 4 exclusive interviews from the Scientific Conference experts! Follow us on Twitter to be notified when they will be published.

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