The National Institutes of Health have awarded Michigan State University researchers $2.7 million to continue developing artificial intelligence algorithms that predict key features of viruses as they evolve.

The team is led by Guowei Wei, an expert in AI and Yong-Hui Zheng, whose extensive background in virology is helping verify and improve AI predictions. The team also includes Jiahui Chen, a visiting assistant professor at MSU who played an essential role in developing the AI models.

The Wei lab has already shown those models can make accurate predictions about new variants of the novel coronavirus and, with this grant, the researchers are working to bolster their algorithms.

“What we’re doing is making our predictions more accurate and more timely,” said Wei, “and now our work isn’t just for COVID, but also for many other viral infections.” The work could one day help drug developers create universal vaccines and therapies that are more effective and “evolution-proof” against a range of viral diseases, including the flu, HIV and COVID-19.

More immediately, the team believes its AI can help inform public health officials if they need to update their recommended protective measures — such as by issuing masking and social distancing guidance — against emerging coronavirus variants.

New variants and subvariants are still emerging. With support from the National Institutes of Health, the MSU team is working to ensure we stay prepared for what’s next, whether that’s a new variant, something more familiar like the flu or something entirely different.