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What Operation Outbreak Taught BYU Students and Faculty

BYU students and faculty participated in Operation Outbreak, a virtual simulation of the transmission of infectious disease, and learned how participant behaviors affect the rate of transmission.

In February 2021, BYU students and faculty participated in Operation Outbreak, an app-based simulation of the spread of infectious disease. It was an experiential learning success that showed how community interactions affect the spread of disease.

During the nine days that the simulation ran, the virtual virus spread via bluetooth while a statistical model determined the rate of infection by tracking the interactions of the participants. The participants also completed a survey about pandemic behaviors and knowledge before and after the simulation and were offered masks and vaccines during the simulation.

The simulation was an instructive display of how the interactions of participants mirror the interactions of pathogens. Of the 450 participants, 16 percent were infected, 5 percent didn’t recover, and 15 percent were vaccinated.

Operation Outbreak (OO), an innovative platform for STEM education on infectious diseases and outbreak preparedness, was created by Sarasota Military Academy Prep school and by the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. This simulation was created with the guidance of Dr. Sabeti and Dr. Andres Colubri from the Sabeti Lab at Harvard.

The Operation Outbreak simulation at BYU was headed by Dr. Brett Pickett, Assistant Professor from the Microbiology and Molecular Biology Department, Curtis Hoffman, microbiology and molecular biology major at BYU, and Dr. Len Novilla, Associate Professor from the BYU Department of Public Health. Dr. Evan Thacker and Dr. Lori Spruance, also from the BYU Department of Public, and Gabe Ghanadian, Health Science major and president of the BYU Public Health Association, also assisted with the simulation.

Dr. Pickett explained that despite the high numbers of infections and deaths in the simulation, the results of the simulation gave him hope that BYU’s pandemic-related policies were effective overall and successful in keeping the virus under control. He also found hope in the efficacy of the vaccine. He said, “There are justified, data-driven reasons for hope and optimism.”

Dr. Novilla emphasized the value of individual and collective behavior in complying with public health pandemic guidelines and in limiting the transmission of infectious diseases, especially with the more transmissible SARS-Cov-2 variants. Data from the surveys showed that the low number of participants who were vaccinated indicated a level of vaccine hesitancy marked by the low student priority given to vaccines. Dr. Novilla said, “It’s important that we empower students to create change for good, address barriers, and identify deeper reasons for the low priority accorded to vaccination.”

Dr. Colubri was also inspired by the results and by the experience of bringing the virtual simulation to BYU campus. He said, “It was an amazing experience and opportunity to demonstrate the platform.”

Operation Outbreak taught the participants and researchers that there are reasons for optimism in the face of the pandemic as well as reasons to create changes to ensure a safer future.