Funded by the High Meadows Environmental Institute and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), the Climate Change and Infectious Disease initiative works to advance our understanding of both direct and indirect impacts of climate on human health by harnessing Princeton’s expertise in understanding and modeling of climate, hydrology and infectious diseases.
Primary researchers on the Climate Change and Infectious Disease initiative are C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs; Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute and director of HMEI; Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs; Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J. Wu ’94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and professor of civil and environmental engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute and; Rachel Baker, associate research scholar in HMEI.
The major potential impacts of climate change on human health are increasingly recognized. Increased rainfall and higher temperatures could provide longer-lasting and more ideal conditions for disease vectors. Meanwhile, extreme weather events can disrupt health-care infrastructure and lead to population migrations that increase the risk and scale of disease transmission. This research initiative further explores those connections by building on the University’s expertise in the Indian Ocean climate system and ecohydrological and infectious-disease modeling; existing links between Princeton researchers and institutions across the region; and the rich data available on infectious diseases in those countries.
Three primary focuses drive the initiative’s research. First, to determine the influence of local-scale rainfall and temperature seasonality on the surrounding climate and the prevalence of disease carriers such as mosquitoes. Second, to investigate the climate-driven severity of humidity and its effect on the occurrence of respiratory diseases such as influenza. Finally, the researchers will evaluate how extreme events such as tropical cyclones amplify infectious disease transmission, with a particular focus on the impact of natural disasters on vaccination rates.
To meet these research goals, research focuses on developing climate models and simulations that can isolate the mechanisms and processes most relevant to understanding disease and local environmental conditions. Experiments are performed to understand the variations in the Indian Ocean region during the past century, as well as project a range of expected outcomes over the next century. In addition, field data is collected and used to investigate the interactions between soil and water — or ecohydrology — that would be most conducive to high atmospheric humidity and the proliferation of disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes.
Finally, researchers linked to this initiative are working with a robust network of colleagues worldwide to amass a regional database on the incidence of disease transmission and insect activity. This data is being used to generate models that illuminate the link between climate processes — notably humidity — and disease transmission.
Researchers in the Climate Change and Infectious Disease initiative published their first collaborative paper in December 2019 in the journal Nature Communications. During the global coronavirus pandemic, faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students affiliated with the initiative have been early contributors to the emerging body of research on how the virus spreads and who is most vulnerable. Their research has been published in journals such as Nature Medicine and two papers published in Science in 2020. In 2021, CCID researchers reported on the factors driving wintertime outbreaks of COVID-19 infection. Researchers affiliated with the initiative led research investigating the effect of COVID-19 measures on other diseases, the impact of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa, and the dangers of vaccine stockpiling.
Among several public talks researchers presented related to the pandemic, Grenfell presented the Feb. 2, 2021, HMEI Faculty Seminar, “What the Population Dynamics of Endemic Infections Can Tell Us About the Future of COVID-19 — and Vice Versa.”
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