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Stop Spillover

The U. S. Agency for International Development Emerging Threats Program launched the infectious disease surveillance program PREDICT in 2009. It included teams from more than 60 countries that would survey the world for unknown viruses in animals and assess their risk of causing pandemics.

The program suffered funding cuts and the task of identifying thousands upon thousands of virus species. Virologists estimate at least 600,000 viruses can spill over into humans. And bat coronaviruses, the most expected time bombs, alone number 5,000.

In September 2019, USAID ended funding for the program. It cost $200 million over a decade. Compare that to the trillions the world has lost over a few weeks of a pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, researchers used information from PREDICT. They could then classify, isolate, and distribute SARS-CoV-2 data without samples and government cooperation from China and the WHO.

“We are in an era now of chronic emergency. Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behavior, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”

Brian Bird, research virologist, University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute

Researchers travel to expected spillover locations like deforested areas, exposed mines, wet and bushmeat markets, and farms near these areas. They sample common host and intermediate species like monkeys, bats, and rats. Scientists then analyze virus surfaces for structures that might fit like a key to human cells.

How the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and other partners in One Health investigate wildlife for pandemic potential.

Researchers also look at cultural activities that decrease the risk of outbreaks.

For instance, banning wet markets will lead to more direct sales to restaurants and create black markets. There would also be worse records, crowding, and hygiene. Governments could enforce the separation of animals, limit the distance animals can be shipped, and proper containment during travel.

Poor travel containment is a plausible explanation for why the current pandemic had 13 of the first official 41 cases with no ties to the local wet market. The first was of those 13 and hospitalized a week before the others. But law enforcement will likely fail in poor regions.

“These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible.”

Delia Grace, senior epidemiologist and veterinarian, International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Global supply and demand influence the high-risk zones for pandemics. Many developing regions compromised their self-sufficiency in favor of massive monocultures for exports. Natural resources used in the developed world degrade the developing world’s environment.

Some people believe that wild animals have medicinal properties. These customers encourage bushmeat sales in cities far from the animals’ native range. Poaching often accompanies the industry. Manufacturing moved to these already high-risk regions, worsened sanitation, and increased urban density.

Many high-risk countries have corrupt governments and poor scientific infrastructure that make detection and reporting unreliable. These regions also give vague diagnoses, treat with broad-spectrum antibiotics, and don’t investigate. Programs like PREDICT had little communication with local hospitals.

“We must think about global biosecurity, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise, we can expect more of the same.”

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity, University College London

PREDICT’s old partners have continued their work:

  • Health and veterinary companies
  • Ecology departments
  • Veterinary schools
  • Research institutes
  • Natural history museums
  • Federal agencies

These groups contribute to the EcoHealth Alliance in some form. Global Virome Project worked closest with PREDICT and communicated more with international partners. Founded in 2016, it has an annual $400 million budget, intensive sampling in the field, and genetic sequencing in the lab.

PREDICT might also have a successor called Stop Spillovers. But it would have to restart many investigations, and no one has announced a budget.

These groups have several limitations to overcome before they are effective.

Besides financial problems, public health workers and research ecologists lack communication. Also, American organizations make up the vast majority of these global efforts. Some other countries have their networks, but that still shows that pandemic prevention is uneven between countries.

Still, compared to J. S. Koen’s day one hundred years ago, we have ridden quite the learning curve in viral ecology.

EcoHealth Alliance trailer.


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