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December 01, 2021

Project aims to identify viruses with pandemic potential

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The U.S. Agency for International Development is working with Washington State University on a global, multimillion-dollar project to identify unknown zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential.

Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens—Viral Zoonoses is a five-year, approximately $125 million project aimed at strengthening global capacity to detect and understand the risks of viral spillover from wildlife to humans that could cause another pandemic, the USAID announced Oct. 5.

The WSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Health will oversee the USAID project, which entails partnering with up to a dozen countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to conduct large-scale animal surveillance within their borders using their own laboratory facilities.

Kariuki Njenga and Tom Kawula
Washington State University’s Kariuki Njenga (center) and Tom Kawula (right) prepare testing for the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome as part of work to detect emerging infectious diseases. (Courtesy of WSU)

“To make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, which are likely to happen more frequently as wild areas become increasingly fragmented, we need to be ready,” said Dr. Felix Lankester, lead principal investigator for DEEP VZN and associate professor with the Allen School, in a statement. “We will work to not only detect viruses but also build capacity in other countries, so the United States can collaborate with them in carrying out this important work.”

The DEEP VZN project will focus on finding previously unknown pathogens within three viral families with high pandemic potential: coronaviruses, filoviruses, and paramyxoviruses. The goal is to collect over 800,000 samples during the five years of the project—most of which will come from wildlife—then determine whether viruses from the target families are present in the samples.

The expectation is that between 8,000 to 12,000 novel viruses will be discovered this way. Researchers will then screen and sequence the genomes of the viruses that pose the most risk to animal and human health.

To meet these goals, WSU will work with a consortium of partners, including virologists with the University of Washington and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, as well as public health nonprofits PATH and FHI 360.

WSU will also draw on the strengths of its veterinary college and on-the-ground expertise from the Allen School for Global Health, which has done extensive work on infectious disease transmission globally.

“Our approach is to collaborate with in-country partners, working side-by-side with their scientists and institutions,” said Tom Kawula, PhD, director of WSU’s Allen School, in a statement. “Our consortium partners help extend our reach and have the same philosophy of working with the people as well as existing structures and expertise in each country.”

Since 2009, USAID’s Global Health Security Program has supported work to safely discover and understand new viruses from animals at high-risk locations. The vast majority, more than 70%, of outbreaks in people originate from animals. USAID created the Predict program, which lasted until 2020 and identified 1,100 unique viruses, provided aid to 60 disease-detection laboratories, and trained 6,200 people in 30 countries. That project, led by the University of California-Davis One Health Institute, was part of the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats program.

USAID will share information it gathers from DEEP VZN with host-country and global partners to develop and implement interventions in communities to reduce the risks of virus spillover and therefore potential outbreaks.

“Data and information gathered by DEEP VZN will also play a critical role in developing diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines for new viruses,” the agency said in a statement. “Developing these tools now is essential for being better prepared for the future when new viruses spillover and stopping them from causing outbreaks that could become pandemics.”