Finding viruses, identifying risks

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Dennis Carroll, PhD, said identifying and cataloging the estimated half-million viruses with zoonotic potential would cost less than the expenditure for responses to many individual diseases.

Dr. Carroll, a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said those viruses are among about 1.3 million estimated unidentified viruses circulating in wild mammals. Developing a database to analyze those viruses could help humans target risks and prepare for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.

He was one in a series of speakers during the AVMA Convention 2016 Global Health Summit, a recurring summit that this year focused on emerging diseases. The agenda included lectures on topics such as preparation for pandemics, man-made threats, and veterinarians’ roles in global health.

Eddy Rubin, MD, chief science officer for the microbiology research and risk analysis company Metabiota, said in another presentation that insurance policies for governments and industries to protect against epidemic risks could increase global resilience against disease threats. It also could give industries and governments the incentive to use safeguards to reduce their risks, just as insurers give discounts on hurricane insurance policies when policyholders have breakwaters.

Dr. Rubin said Metabiota is working to analyze data and provide governments, industries, and the public more information on risk. That includes collecting data on various interacting segments of food production, where safety risks can cascade and compound.

He also described an increasing role for genomics in disease surveillance as well as the potential for technology to give businesses and individuals methods to use advancements to improve safety. Within the next decade, he expects not only an increase in the number of genomic sequencers in laboratories but also their potential expansion into agriculture facilities and homes for use in examining disease risks and causes.

Dr. Carroll said the work to catalog unidentified viruses through the Global Virome Project would cost about $3.5 billion, a fraction of the existing costs to react to unexpected viral outbreaks.

He described a rise in the frequency of disease emergence, driven by population growth and its effects on animal environments as humans encroach. And he indicated that the need for preventive measures is shown by the shortcomings in reactive measures, such as vaccination.

For example, a novel pandemic H1N1 influenza virus emerged in April 2009, spread to at least 73 countries by June, and caused 2 billion infections by April 2010, at which point vaccine production would have been able to protect about 17 percent of the global population, he said. Even with advancements in vaccine technology, he expects only modest improvements in the amount of time needed for vaccine production.

Instead of developing vaccines for every infectious agent discovered, Dr. Carroll said those working in public health could, for example, develop countermeasures for families of viruses ahead of outbreaks. Detection of these viruses also improves understanding of viral ecology and helps identify intervention points.

The importance of this work will increase, he said, because virus emergence events are becoming more frequent and more intense.