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December 01, 2020

US-led $100M project to study, reduce zoonotic disease threats

USAID-funded effort to focus on hot spots of human-wildlife interaction
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Fruit bat
Fruit bats are the main reservoirs of the Nipah virus, which can be deadly to humans.

Disease experts from across the globe will collaborate on a five-year project to understand and reduce zoonotic disease risks in global hot spots.

Dr. Deborah T. Kochevar, dean emerita of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, is director of the Strategies to Prevent Spillover—or STOP Spillover—project, a $100 million effort funded through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. She described herself as an air traffic controller for the participants within Tufts and partner organizations in Africa, Asia, and the U.S.

“The model that we proposed to USAID—and that they endorsed—really asks people who live in these spillover zones or hot zones about their thinking and their concerns as to which diseases are of most concern to them,” Dr. Kochevar said. “Obviously, we have priority pathogens that we’re focused on as well.”

Teams at Tufts and the University of Minnesota collaborated on a project from 2009-19 to build one-health capacity in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The STOP Spillover project participants would increase surveillance where diseases are likely to spill over from animals to humans, design interventions to prevent that spillover, and assess the success of those interventions, she said. Reducing the risk of spillover requires understanding the routines of people who work closest to wildlife, such as those in mining, forestry, and farming industries where wild environments are cleared for human activities.

Tufts officials will lead work by a consortium of experts in wildlife and human diseases, according to a USAID announcement.

“With the consortium’s cross-disciplinary experience and deep relationships in partner countries, STOP Spillover will contribute directly to the reduction of future outbreaks from known zoonotic viruses,” the announcement states. “The award will apply USAID’s understanding of risk; build on our prior investments; and deploy our prior experience through working with local governments, stakeholders, and high-risk communities to develop and institutionalize innovative, country-specific, and sustainable approaches so they are well-prepared to prevent future outbreaks.”

Dr. Kochevar hopes that, by working with people at risk and building on existing disease-prevention systems, the project will help affected people understand the reasons for any interventions and support those changes long term. Behavior changes, while difficult to achieve, are a priority for the project, she said.

She cited as examples past interventions that reduced Nipah virus infections by preventing fruit contamination by bat waste and reduced Ebola virus infections by changing how people handled the bodies of those killed by the virus, as well as by identifying potential regulations that could reduce the risks from wildlife markets.

Dr. Kochevar described a structure including field technicians within communities, consultants to guide sample collection, and country-based disease authorities to guide projects, regional veterinarians, and resource hubs. She commended the U.S. government—through USAID, an independent agency of the federal government responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance—for not only investing in research toward understanding emerging pandemic threats, but also recognizing that interventions need to come from the countries where spillover occurs, rather than be exported from the U.S.

Tufts, along with partners at universities and companies, will aid the project through efforts such as helping to design studies, mentoring researchers, and assisting in analyzing data.

Another large-scale USAID-funded program shut down earlier this year after a decade of identifying viruses and bolstering countermeasures. The Predict project, led by the University of California-Davis One Health Institute, was part of the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats program, and its participants identified 1,100 unique viruses, trained 6,200 people in 30 countries, and aided 60 disease detection laboratories.

Officials at the One Health Institute continue global work on emerging infectious diseases. An announcement from August describes plans to use $8 million in National Institutes of Health funding toward a five-year plan for research on the Amazon and Congo Basin forests and how viruses spread from wildlife to humans.

In the Tufts-based STOP Spillover project, partner organizations are as follows: Africa One Health University Network; Southeast Asia One Health University Network; Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University; Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team; Internews; International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh; JSI Research and Training Institute Inc.; Tetra Tech ARD; University of California-Los Angeles; University of Glasgow Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health, and Comparative Medicine; Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; and the University of Washington Institute for Risk Analysis and Risk Communication, according to an announcement from Tufts.