Global project aims to identify viral threats

Published on April 11, 2018
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A 10-year virus identification project starting this year could identify most viruses with potential to cause disease in humans.

In an article published Feb. 23 in Science, leaders of the Global Virome Project estimate the cost of discovering all 630,000-830,000 viruses in the same families as currently known zoonotic viruses would be more than $7 billion. Finding 71 percent would cost an estimated $1.2 billion.

​Ebolavirus particles are shown in blue on a chronically infected cell in this colorized scanning electron micrograph. (Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

"Those viruses remaining undiscovered will, by the nature of sampling bias toward more common host species, represent the rarest viruses with the least opportunity for spillover, and therefore reduced public health risk," the article states. "Their discovery would require exponentially greater sampling effort and funding that could be better spent on countermeasures for the more likely threats."

A planning document published following an August 2016 meeting describes the virome project as "designed to be the beginning of the end of the Pandemic Era."

Dr. Jonna A.K. Mazet is director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Predict virus emergence project, director of the One Health Institute in the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and one of the authors of the article in Science. She said the Global Virome Project cost is reasonable, relatively small, and lower than the expenses would be for responding to a single outbreak with a novel virus. The true cost will depend on participation by governments, organizations, and individuals.

Thailand has a national virus discovery and metagenomics project and will collaborate with the virome project, she said. China also is expected to contribute data through a national initiative.

She noted that the U.S. government has invested $200 million in Predict, which has provided the foundational work for the virome project. And dozens of organizations of varied size have expressed interest in participating in the virome project.

The information gathered through the Global Virome Project should improve forecasts and preparation for emerging infections, Dr. Mazet said. It also would build on Predict's success at amplifying regional abilities to detect and respond to virus emergence.

The Science article indicates additional benefits could derive from improved understanding of virus biology, competition among viruses, coevolution of viruses, evolution of virus clades, and novel virus group identification.

"Like the Human Genome Project, the GVP will provide a wealth of publicly accessible data, potentially leading to discoveries that are hard to anticipate, perhaps viruses that cause cancers and chronic physiological, mental health, or other behavioral disorders," the article states. "It will provide orders-of-magnitude more information about future threats to global health and biosecurity, improve our ability to identify vulnerable populations, and enable us to more precisely target mitigation and control measures to foster an era of global pandemic prevention."

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