How can we stop the following pandemic?

At the end of July 2016, more than a dozen Liberian researchers set up a makeshift laboratory on the edge of the rainforest in northern Nimba County in their country that divides the border with Guinea. Liberia is home to more than 40 percent of West Africa's forests and some of the rarest animals in the world Species, including Liberian mongoose and pygmy hippos. But Jackson Poultolnor and the other researchers, all dressed in rubber boots, N95 masks, face protection, leather welding gloves, and Tyvek suits, were there for bats.

Bats have been a food source in Africa and other parts of the planet for thousands of years. When Poultolnor was a child, his mother prepared the meat in a sweet stew for him and his eight siblings. The mammal is also a reservoir of pathogens and is considered the source of the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2013, which led to more than 11,000 deaths in this region. So Poultolnor and his team ventured into the thick vegetation to tie fog nets to trees to catch and examine the animal. It was Liberia's first wildlife surveillance operation and was carried out as part of Predict, an organization launched in 2009 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats Infectious Disease Monitoring Program.

Predict's Liberian branch is preparing to collect wildlife samples in the field (Photo: Courtesy of USAID Predict)

Since the organization was founded, American epidemiologists and sociologists have trained over 6,000 researchers in more than 30 developing countries to detect zoonotic diseases in wildlife and work with local officials to prevent new outbreaks. Forecast teams around the world have discovered over 1,100 new viruses, including Ebola viruses and SARS-like corona viruses.

In January 2019, after more than two years sampling more than 5,000 bats every two weeks, the Liberian Predict team found one that tested positive for Ebola. It was the first time that the type of Ebola virus responsible for the 2013 epidemic was discovered in a Liberian bat. The discovery could help scientists learn more about how this virus infects humans and how other zoonotic diseases with pandemic potential can spread.

A few months later, in the fall of 2019, the Trump administration ended Predict funding and left more than 60 research laboratories around the world in suspense.

At the heart of the Predict project are the principles laid down by the One Health Initiative, which are intended to promote collaboration between experts in various scientific fields that benefit the well-being of people, animals and the environment.

It's an all-in-one philosophy that has deep historical roots. The Ahimsa of Hinduism dictates that all living things are sacred because they are part of God and the natural world. Totemism, which is popular with many African tribes, requires a relationship between humans and animals. Similarly, One Health, launched in 2007 by veterinarians and doctors in the United States, tries to understand the interface between humans and animals, to promote interdisciplinary cooperation in governmental and scientific fields, to prevent human interference in natural habitats and one comprehensive monitoring of pathogens.

A health approachA field researcher who collects saliva samples from bats (Photo: Courtesy of USAID Predict)

According to researchers at the University of California One Health Institute in Davis, over 1.6 million viruses are lurking in animal farmers worldwide, and more than 650,000 have the potential to infect humans. In fact, almost 75 percent of the diseases that affect humans today come from wild animals. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the current pandemic, is believed to come from bats and has been transmitted to humans via wildlife for sale at an open air market in Wuhan, China.

In addition to the large number of viruses, scientists at the One Health Institute say that viruses also mutate faster than ever. Urbanization and climate change as well as activities such as logging, poaching and animal trade have shrunk and fragmented natural habitats, which in turn has led to increased contact between humans and animals and more opportunities for viral mutations.

"Trying to find these viruses in the wild is like finding a needle in a haystack," says James Desmond, an American field veterinarian who has been named the leader of Predict in Liberia by the Obama administration. That doesn't mean it's worthless to try. Although Predict's operation costs $ 20 million annually, some have estimated that the current COVID-19 outbreak could cost the world $ 10 trillion. A future pandemic could cost a lot more.

A health approachPrediction of bat sampling activity in West Africa (Photo: Simon Townsley)

Although Predict was unable to identify the virus that leads to COVID-19, a Predict-sponsored publication by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2015 warned of the "likelihood of future bat coronaviruses occurring in humans" in China and Southeast Asia .

On April 1, when confirmed cases of COVID-19 exceeded one million in the United States and three million worldwide, Predict received $ 2.26 million for a six-month extension of USAID to focus on the coronavirus. But the money was far from enough to host teams in different countries. Fortunately, USAID announced a new project in May: STOP Spillover will start in September this year and use the data collected by Predict to develop interventions that reduce the risk of transmitting dangerous pathogens from animals to humans.

For too long, there has been a cycle of outbreaks of panic (as threats increase) and neglect (as they wane), says Tierra Smiley Evans, a veterinarian and epidemiologist at the One Health Institute. She hopes that this pandemic will lead to something else. "We cannot leave out a single country to understand the importance of the link between human and animal health and to work together to prevent the next pandemic," she says. "With the tragedy that is now happening on the planet, I hope we can come out stronger at the other end."

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Main photo: Simon Townsley

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