Is the end of the pandemic era approaching?

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Global Virome Project aims to find majority of all unknown viruses

An increasing collection of government agencies and scientific research centers are collaborating on a project, called the Global Virome Project, to find a majority of all viruses that exist in mammals in the next ten years. By having information about viruses that may “spill over” from wildlife populations and infect humans, the world would be more prepared to deal with and end pandemics.

“I’m really excited by the idea that we can bring about, I think, the beginning of the end of the Pandemic Era,” said Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance. “People talk about this time as a period when pandemics just happen every few years. I think we’ll see an end to that.”

Together with the UC Davis One Health Institute, EcoHealth alliance is one of the multiple partners of the Global Virome Project and has previously worked with UC Davis and internationally affiliated organizations on the PREDICT project, which also sought to find viruses. Established by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009, PREDICT works to increase surveillance and detection of emerging viral threats.

Working in 28 countries, PREDICT determines the risk of a virus outbreak in an area based off a number of factors that include how humans interact with the animals in that area, what viruses the animals are carrying and more. It then builds laboratories that can discover viruses and works with researchers to determine if the newly found viruses pose a threat to animal and human health. The Global Virome Project is more focused on just finding viruses, but used PREDICT to show this method of detecting and discovering viruses is possible on a large scale.

“The Global Virome Project will collect a wealth of information about viruses, their host species and related ecological data, which will enable us to change our current approach to emerging infectious diseases from chasing after the last outbreak to proactively preparing for the next pandemic,” said Eri Togami, a public health veterinarian based at the UC Davis One Health Institute.

By finding benign or harmful viruses that already exist in animals, scientists would have a greater head start on developing counter measures in case the viruses turn out to be dangerous to humans.

“The main contrast from the Global Virome project and PREDICT is, PREDICT isn’t out there to discover all of the viruses in mammalian species […] for PREDICT, it’s more real time, in the here and now, where are the areas where more resources need to be better developed to improve surveillance and detection where we think are at or are the highest risk… for a potential new threat to emerge and cause, like the equivalent of a 1918 influenza [pandemic],” said David Wolking, the senior global operations lead for PREDICT.

Although viruses from virtually any mammal can pass to humans, the groups that researchers are most concerned with are rodents, bats and non-human primates. Many of these animals live close to human populations and carry viruses that pose a risk to people.  

“But I think that the big picture is, it’s not just the animal, it’s what we do with the animal. So if bats have viruses and we don’t go out and hunt bats and kill them […] we’re not going to catch the viruses, “ Daszak said. ”That’s the real problem, our relationship with nature, we’re connected so closely and they’re so many of us on the planet now, eating so many things in remote areas so we’re getting exposed to these viruses that are a natural part of an animal’s life […] When they [viruses] get into us, they become lethal diseases.”

Deforestation, hunting new animals and globalization have all been hypothesized as factors that increase the risk of pandemics. All of these forces are man-made.

“Humans are really the force behind pandemics,” Daszak said. “It’s unfortunate, we all get very shocked and surprised when a new disease emerges and starts to kill people. What we don’t realize it’s us that’s driven that process.”

An algorithm that is used to estimate animals in a population has estimated that there are 1.7 million unknown viruses. Based off the 28 countries PREDICT has worked in, Daszak believes the Global Virome Project can find 71 percent of those viruses in ten years with a budget of $1.2 million.

The Global Virome Project has been likened to the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire set of human DNA. This led to many advances in gene therapies as well as gene sequencing techniques. A few of the researchers have expressed hope that the Global Virome Project will go down a similar path, that in time technology for detecting viruses and their potential to harm humans will become better and more readily available. Aside from the task of identifying most viruses that are currently unknown to science, the Global Virome Project is also developing infrastructure and training scientists across the world.

“The Global Virome Project is not just a big science project — it is a capacity building project and a global partnership,” Togami said. “In the long-term, we want to bring people together, especially between sectors that did not have the opportunity to work to with each other before. This collaborative approach will build a lasting effect to help us prepare and respond to viral threats in the future.”

 

 

Written by: Rachel Paul — science@theaggie.org