Spotting the animal bugs that could shift to humans
Surveillance of at-risk populations for signs of animal-to-human disease transmission could prove crucial in preventing the next wave of pandemics, say disease experts.
Nathan Wolfe — a human biology professor at US-based Stanford University — and colleagues have established the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), which brings together specialists such as epidemiologists to identify bugs at their point of origin and monitor their spread into human populations. The initiative is currently around 100-strong, with members stationed at disease hotspots across the globe.
Populations vulnerable to infectious diseases from wild animals include those who work in live animal markets and rural villagers who hunt and butcher wild animals.
Ten years ago — when their surveillance vision was born — Wolfe and colleagues began studying viruses in Cameroonian hunters. They found several animal viruses previously unseen in humans, including new varieties of viruses that already affect millions of people worldwide and contribute to cancer and neurological disease.
But identifying a new bug is only the beginning. Other factors include whether it causes disease, its mode of transmission, whether it can spread from person to person and whether it has spread to urban areas — via blood transfusions, for example. The GVFI is developing diagnostic tests to check for the presence of viruses in the blood banks.
The ultimate goal is to expand to more countries, including Brazil and Indonesia, but this is expensive — it is estimated that expansion would cost US$30 million, while maintenance would require another US$10 million a year.
But Wolfe says: "Even just mitigating [an epidemic] would justify the cost".