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January 15, 2020

Pandemic prevention program ending after 10 years

USAID Predict led virus discovery, health training, risk education
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After an Ebola epidemic, disease experts spent 2 1/2 years searching in three West African countries for viruses that endanger people.

Partners in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Predict program trained local teams on biological safety and collected tens of thousands of diagnostic samples in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, especially from bats. They found a new Ebola strain—Bombali—in free-tailed bats and found the deadly Marburg virus in the region for the first time. In one bat, they found a Zaire ebolavirus, the type that caused the 2014-16 epidemic and killed 11,000 people.

David Wolking, senior manager of global programs for the One Health Institute at the University of California-Davis and global operations manager for Predict, said Predict teams in those countries used the findings to teach people in nearby villages how to reduce their risk and connected them with government and health care workers who could use Predict’s training to help them stay safe.

Predict Rwanda team collecting samples
Members of a Predict Rwanda team collect samples from rodents. (Photos courtesy of the University of California-Davis One Health Institute)

“I think that’s a really great encapsulation of Predict’s mission and our achievements as a whole,” Wolking said.

The Predict project is winding down after 10 years of work that identified 1,100 unique viruses, provided aid to 60 disease detection laboratories, and trained 6,200 people in 30 countries. The project, led by the UC-Davis One Health Institute, is part of the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats program.

Wolking said Predict’s second five-year term ended Sept. 30, 2019, although USAID provided a six-month extension for studies that use the project’s accumulated evidence to learn about virus spillover, spread, and countermeasures. He knows USAID officials want to continue the type of work conducted by Predict: reducing pandemic threats, increasing laboratory capacity, and learning what dangerous viruses threaten people, especially those circulating in wildlife.

Dr. William Karesh is executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance, one of the founding organizations in Predict. He said Predict’s 10-year run was a success, and it makes sense to move on.

“The project’s been so productive and so successful, at some point, you need to take those lessons and move forward expanding into other areas,” he said.

Dr. Karesh said the project built nations’ cross-disciplinary health platforms. It also helped people in those countries set health policies and priorities.

Building those platforms took cooperation across environmental and public health sectors, as well as a little money and a lot of trust, Dr. Karesh said. But local government agencies are better able to keep developing the platforms, and partner organizations are better at writing grant proposals and seeking funding. The European Union, World Bank, and private foundations see the wisdom of investing in these disease prevention efforts, he said.

Predict team member examining a wild bird
Predict team members examine wild birds following a large die-off in August 2018 at Sangiin Dalai Lake in Mongolia.

In a 2018 article in the journal Science, leaders of the Global Virome Project announced a 10-year effort to discover hundreds of thousands of viruses from the same families as known zoonoses, with funding from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Project information cites the Predict program as proof such a virus discovery program is feasible.

A USAID spokesperson provided a statement that the agency continues its commitment to work with countries on reducing spillover, amplification, and spread of zoonoses and becoming self-reliant in fighting disease. Predict provided a wealth of data and analyses that will aid new projects as USAID officials keep working to detect pathogens with pandemic potential and reduce that risk.

“The Agency looks forward to building upon the lessons learned and the significant contributions made by the consortium to the global knowledge base to protect Americans and people around the world from future infectious threats,” the statement says.

The project’s one-health approach, Wolking said, helped build international coalitions that could send people into the field and conduct difficult sampling and data collection work, especially in tropical regions known as hot spots for disease emergence.

The project’s data will remain available to all, which Wolking thinks will be a huge benefit and a legacy of Predict.

Predict’s legacy also includes Living Safely with Bats, a picture book designed to help people understand that bats have important environmental roles but can host viruses that cause diseases in people.

Dr. Karesh said Predict’s teams worked with academic and government partners in Jordan, as well as Bedouins who breed camels, to identify the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus in camels and report the finding to international health authorities. A university-based Predict partner in Thailand tested for unknown viruses among boys who had been trapped 18 days in a cave, finding no novel viruses and reassuring families and government officials.

The local partners from Predict are staying in their home countries, where they can teach others and build defenses against emerging disease, Dr. Karesh said.

“At some point, when we do foreign aid and when we do development projects, they’re supposed to become self-sustaining or sustainable,” he said. “That’ll never happen if you continue projects for hundreds of years.”