University of California, Davis

Beginning the end of the pandemic era

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Project Summary

Since 2002, 5 viral epidemics have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and cost the global economy over $120 billion. Diseases are emerging at an alarming rate, with most threats originating from animals. Despite advances, we remain unprepared and vulnerable to pandemics. Epidemics cause major societal and economic disruption, with the latest Ebola outbreak declared an international emergency. We will work in locations most vulnerable to emerging infections, including eastern DRC and bordering countries, to identify viruses of pandemic potential. Using proven viral discovery methods and risk analyses, we will identify the wildlife viruses capable of spillover into people, their hosts, and the circumstances that facilitate transmission to design interventions for at-risk communities that prevent the explosion into epidemics and pandemics. For a cost significantly less than one epidemic response, we will halt the spread of viral diseases at the source and begin the end of the pandemic era.

Problem Statement

We live in an era in which threats posed by global pandemics and epidemics are greater than at any other point in human history. The uncontrolled Ebolavirus outbreak in DRC illustrates our inability to predict when, where, or how the next virus will emerge with devastating loss of human life. If viruses are our enemy, we do not know our enemy very well. Ebola can cause the death of up to 90% of infected individuals, and although evidence suggests bats and primates are likely hosts, we have yet to confirm the source, making disease control and prevention almost impossible. The viruses we do know about are barely the tip of the iceberg, with an estimated 500,000 yet-to-be-discovered viruses with human disease potential. Forested tropical regions with high wildlife biodiversity and changing land use are at highest risk of an emerging infectious disease outbreak. When we can travel around the world in less time than it takes for most viruses to cause disease symptoms in humans, new viral outbreaks in remote regions become a global concern. Success in preventing pandemics and the uncontrolled spread of epidemics requires thinking and acting differently. Revolutionary advances in health science and technology have made it possible to close the knowledge gap for unknown viruses, including their hosts and ecology. By targeting viral discovery in disease-prone DRC and surrounding biodiversity hotspots with limited epidemic preparedness, we can immediately identify potential viral threats and create community-based solutions with both local and global impacts on human health.

Solution Overview

On average three new diseases are being detected in people each year, most spilling over from wildlife, yet we have not taken the steps to proactively identify and control them. Our team in the USA and Central-East Africa, a hot-bed region for viral emergence, has utilized and contributed to technological advances that now allow a pivot of global health culture from one that is reactive to proactive. Our approach, published in Science and featured in TEDMED, will allow us to identify 99% of unknown viruses that can jump from wildlife to people. This will result in the first comprehensive catalog of the highest priority pathogens in the Congo basin, permitting countermeasure development well in advance of future epidemic events. We propose never-before sampling intensity of animals which harbor the majority of viruses transmissible to people. Locally, we will characterize the geographic scope and host range of viruses by utilizing an established field and laboratory surveillance team. Once we know the source and the types of interaction that allow spillover of viruses, we can equip communities to mitigate the risk of preventable human infection and thus onward transmission among humans that until now has been responsible for the recurrent outbreaks of diseases like Ebola in vulnerable populations. Benefits to the global community include the creation of new tools for diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disease, a dramatic increase in data for wildlife conservation, and opportunities for improving legal, regulatory and policy frameworks for global health surveillance and biodiversity.

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Project Funders

  • United States Agency for International Development

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