Natacha Aveline-Dubach, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne

The first international workshop of the French-Singaporean SPACE project, focusing on the prevention and control of infectious diseases in the urban environments of urban regions, took place on December 7 and 8, 2023 at the Centre Panthéon of the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. This event, occurring midway through the project’s three-year duration, aimed to showcase the initial findings from research conducted in Singapore and foster a collaborative dialogue with social science researchers in France exploring infectious disease risk factors.

In an increasingly networked and mobile world, infectious diseases are increasingly globalized, undermining the efforts of the World Health Organization to enhance pathogen control efficiency. Such diseases spread through various media and impact populations unevenly across fragmented infrastructures and ecologies. While planetary urbanization has rendered all regions vulnerable, large urban areas remain the epicenters for epidemic outbreaks and transmissions as they serve as dense nodes of rapid economic and infrastructural development, urban inequalities, mobility and migration, and broader environmental changes.

While a substantial body of research has explored the risk factors of specific infectious diseases in cities, limited knowledge exists on the interactions between different diseases with varying transmission dynamics. Furthermore, there is a research gap in understanding how urban residents, situated within diverse socio-cultural and built environments, perceive epidemics, prepare to respond, negotiate with public policies, and contribute through their lifestyles to the mitigation or the spread of diseases.

The SPACE project (Shaping Public Adaptive Capacity For Environmental Infectious Diseases) seeks to address this gap. Its primary objective is to develop an innovative protocol for disease prediction and prevention in the Singaporean context, with a specific emphasis on dengue, taking into account its concurrent occurrence with COVID-19. The project is based on the assumption that the acquisition of knowledge on response to health risks and adaptive capacity of residential communities and urban stakeholders can significantly improve the predicting power of epidemiologic models, as well as to understand the processes leading to the concentration of health risk factors in specific locations.

More precisely, the SPACE project aims to make three key contributions:
1. Strengthen predictive epidemiological modeling capacity in Singapore by developing a finely detailed dataset on the socio-spatial landscape of the city.
2. Re-establish the connection between infectious diseases and urban planning that has weakened in contemporary societies. By leveraging the correlative links between the social and spatial configurations of cities and epidemiological aspects, the project aims to develop artificial intelligence tools to assist in the creation of urban and architectural forms more resilient to pathogen transmission.
3. Enhance communication strategies for epidemic prevention and control by examining the current design of public awareness campaigns and evaluating their effectiveness. Communication strategies can effectively alter perceptions and behaviors regarding the mitigation of epidemics and pandemics.

SPACE is funded by the National Research Foundation, Singapore’s counterpart to the ANR, secured through a grant from the CREATE program. CREATE, the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise, accommodates research centers established by top-tier universities. The consortium consists of nine partners, primarily comprising American and European universities such as MIT, University of California Berkeley, and ETH Zurich. Among these partners, CNRS is unique in its role as a research center. Its integration into the CREATE consortium enables CNRS-affiliated researchers to participate in projects under the CREATE program and fosters the development of partnerships with other esteemed members of the consortium.

SPACE is overseen by CNRS@CREATE, the entity established by CNRS in Singapore for the management of CREATE projects. It brings together the five most prestigious public universities in Singapore: NUS, NTU, SUTD, SMU and SUSS. In France, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, which hosts this workshop, co-supervises with CNRS the two main research units supporting this project: Géographie-cités (project support unit) and Prodig. Other French universities and research organizations are also involved: Université de Nanterre, Université Reims-Champagne, INRAE. In all, the project brings together some thirty researchers.

For this workshop in Paris, we have invited colleagues engaged in social science research on infectious diseases in France (or other diseases, we will also have a presentation on lead and Notre Dame de Paris), approaching the subject from different disciplines. We have also invited Robert Boyer (research director at CNRS, Institut des Amériques) et Jean-Paul Gaudillière (research director at EHESS) to offer a broader perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced capitalisms, and how the international public health landscape is evolving in the context of current global health governance.

There are several reasons for Singapore and France to collaborate in social science research relating to infectious diseases. This is particularly evident in the context of air-borne diseases such as Covid 19, which has the potential to rapidly escalade into global pandemics.
But there is also relevance for collaboration in addressing vector-borne diseases, especially dengue fever.

The reasons are threefold:
1) The incidence of dengue has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades, with reported cases now exceeding 5 million, and affecting over 100 countries. This includes Singapore, where dengue is endemic. Dengue is also endemic or endemo-epidemic in several French overseas territories (notably in the Caribbean the South Pacific). Currently, we are witnessing the emergence of autochthonous dengue in the south of mainland France. This situation is unique among European countries, and the determinants have yet to be identified. In any case, the incidence of dengue is highly likely to increase in the coming years due to the influence of climate change.
2) Second, Singapore and France have developed sophisticated models of dengue transmission factors based on biophysical, demographic, and land-use determinants (to which French scholars add mobility factors, as we’ll explore in this workshop). Some of the most knowledgeable scholars in Singapore in this field are involved in the SPACE project and will be presenting their findings today. In France, we have in Montpellier (South of France) a cluster of researchers of various disciplines involved in dengue research; colleagues of the Institute for Research and Development (IRD) are also very active in investigating dengue transmission dynamics in French overseas territories and other countries. Given the time limit of these two days, it was not possible to give account of the wealth of this scholarship at this workshop.
3) Both countries are experimenting with innovative approaches to reduce mosquito populations. Singapore employs Wolbachia technology, which involves infecting male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with a bacterium to prevent the eggs from hatching. In French Polynesia, male mosquitoes undergo sterilization with X-rays before being released to mate with females. The success of these experiments in both countries significantly depends on community acceptance, which gives strong significance to social science approaches.

Alongside the numerous studies modeling risk factors and analyzing the impact of biotechnologies to reduce the mosquitos, there is a significant gap in social science research addressing the politic, socio-economic, and cultural aspects in the transmission of dengue. In this workshop, we focus on these dimensions. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been extensively analyzed by social scientists, we specifically address gaps in the mobility aspects of COVID-19.

The opportunity to collaborate and share ideas with fellow French researchers enriched our collective understanding and fostered meaningful links.
We sincerely thank all participants for their valuable contributions to this workshop.

We would also like to express gratitude to our sponsors for their generous support: the National Research Foundation, University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne (with special thanks to its vice-president Cécile Faliès), as well as the Labex Dynamite.