Building on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado State University has received a $2 million commitment from The Anschutz Foundation to further the development of new solutions for building resilience and agility in stopping infectious disease transmission among animals and people.
The grant is to be funded over two years and will be used to sponsor new interdisciplinary research teams and diverse graduate students, and it will fund one of the first comprehensive cyber biosecurity programs to protect health data in the nation. CSU leaders say increasing diversity in these teams and graduate students will be an important component of the gift, building greater equity in the response to infectious disease. Increasing greater participation among first-generation Colorado students will also be a goal of the investments made in building a diverse future workforce.
“This gift is a vote of confidence in the work that we’ve already done in preventing and minimizing the devastating impact that the transmission of disease between humans and animals can have, as we’ve seen in the past 16 months,” said CSU President Joyce McConnell. “We are so thankful for this gift because it will advance our efforts in this area on several fronts, and it will be transformational in our ability to meet future public health challenges.”
‘Key to the future’
Christian Anschutz, president of The Anschutz Foundation, said CSU’s dedication to the One Health model – which is built around the interconnectedness of animals, humans and the environment – was a key factor in making the contribution.
“We recognize that the integrated, interdisciplinary approach at CSU is key to the future of addressing infectious disease with resilience and agility,” Anschutz said. “This is a way to help ensure that the impact of the next outbreak is quickly minimized – or possibly avoided entirely. A multi-disciplined approach is the best way to stop a pandemic.”
Areas of focus include enhanced monitoring and surveillance for the emergence of infectious disease threats that could lead to widespread consequences, more agile production and distribution of countermeasures such as therapeutics and vaccines, social/cultural practices that could influence societal response to outbreaks, and the protection of critical health data used in research and response.
Placing CSU at the forefront
Candace Mathiason, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology at CSU, quickly helped assemble an interdisciplinary team to respond to COVID-19 during spring 2020.
“The most important asset we have in the continued search for answers to the threat of infectious disease outbreaks is our faculty, their students, and the passion to respond how we best respond: as scientists, engaged with one another and our community partners,” she said. “The Anschutz Foundation investment will help sustain what has been built, placing CSU and Colorado — once again — at the forefront of the next health crisis, the next pandemic, should it arise.”
The effort will result in demonstrable outcomes and prototypes, such as new rapid diagnostics, tabletop equipment for manufacturing and rapid distribution of vaccines in areas where outbreaks are occurring, and better communication methods that inform the public of risks and practices that reduce damage from infectious disease outbreaks. The gift will result in investments in interdisciplinary approaches through a competitive process by early fall, according to CSU Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph.
“We received this generous gift because of the great work our faculty members have done responding to COVID-19 and years of investment in these areas,” he said, citing his office’s Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships and Programs of Research and Scholarly Excellence programs, which have funded interdisciplinary projects in infectious disease outbreak research and response since 2015. “This funding will also let us continue to build capacity for groundbreaking infectious disease research on our Foothills Campus and advance our trajectory after being named one of the top universities in the country for our response to the pandemic. We are incredibly thankful for this support.”
A longstanding relationship
Kim Tobin, vice president for University Advancement at CSU, agreed.
“CSU is grateful for our longstanding relationship with The Anschutz Foundation, which has helped our students reach their academic goals and advanced groundbreaking research that makes a meaningful difference in people’s lives,” said Kim Tobin, vice president for University Advancement at CSU. “Through this gift, The Anschutz Foundation’s continued generosity will ensure our exceptional research teams are supported in their quest to solve the public health challenges of our time.”
Rudolph pointed to the fact that animal-to-human, or “zoonotic,” infectious disease outbreaks have been spiking in recent decades, exemplified by the Zika virus, swine flu, SARS, MERS and others, including COVID-19.
“We want to flatten the curve of animal or human losses from outbreaks,” he said. “That’s what this gift is all about, building resilience to future outbreaks and increasing our agility in our response to these threats.”
Collaboration will be key
The gift agreement calls on CSU to continue collaborating with other partners in Colorado on the work, including the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus – with which CSU has launched a branch of the CU School of Medicine – and the Colorado School of Public Health, which involves CSU, the Anschutz Medical Campus and the University of Northern Colorado.
“This support accelerates pandemic preparedness and response for the well-being of our communities and strengthens the existing collaboration between the Colorado School of Public Health, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado State University,” said CSU Chancellor Emeritus Joe Blake, who helped facilitate the gift.
Rudolph emphasized that research funded by the Anschutz gift will not be limited to the hard sciences of wet labs, but social/cultural influences in response, such as hesitancy to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which limit the ability to recover from outbreaks.
“The fact that we still have a significant percentage of people who are unvaccinated – that’s a social sciences issue, and it may be best addressed by creating diversity in our research teams and their approaches – and including the social sciences and cultural influences in our response,” he said.
Rudolph added that what captured the attention of The Anschutz Foundation included CSU’s current work on cyber biosecurity. He cited recent security threats to health infrastructure, including recent ransomware attacks on human health data from hospitals and animal operations, such as the recent ransomware attack at JBS in Colorado. This growing area of cyber biosecurity includes the accidental or intentional contamination of critical life sciences and health data such as DNA sequences. This can result in significant interruptions to bio-manufacturing operations such as vaccine production and supply chains that support recovery from infectious disease outbreaks.
He cited several incidents – like hackers accessing and changing DNA sequences identified in laboratories – that have heightened the need to improve cyber biosecurity to protect data sets and reduce the vulnerability of pandemic response tools.
In the effort to become the national leader in the field, CSU will partner with other Colorado institutions with similar interests and continue training the next generation of the workforce that will find jobs in the growing area of cybersecurity, where the biomedical field is one of many evolving elements.