By Roxanne Lee
Disease inflicts massive economic and human costs across the globe, and despite years of preparation, the response to such crises can leave much to be desired. Previously unknown diseases, upon appearing for the first time, have the potential to inflict even worse damage than those that researchers have had the opportunity to prepare for. A recently formed global initiative wants to prevent such vulnerability.
The Global Virome Project, set to start in 2018, is an international organization led by researchers at the University of California, Davis, that seeks to identify and categorize unknown viruses that stand to harm humans before they cause pandemics. The project was spurred in part by observations of epidemics from the present and recent past, including Ebola and influenza. The researchers plan to focus on viruses in particular, and on prediction and prevention on a global scale, as opposed to a reactionary relationship with zoonotic viruses. Zoonotic viruses, and zoonotic diseases in general, are diseases that pass between animals and people. The Project’s goal is to identify at least 70 percent of viral zoonotic threats on the planet, as well as to collect data on location of origin and method of spread. The data will be made public for future use in identifying and combating diseases.
Zoonotic diseases can be viruses, like those the Project hopes to discover, as well as fungi, parasites, and bacteria. They make up the vast majority of common infections in humans, including rabies, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease. According to the CDC, an estimated 6 out of 10 infectious diseases come from animals. The spread of zoonotic disease is a pressing concern, as increased urbanization and destruction of habitats increasingly brings humans and animals into close contact.
Our knowledge of zoonotic viruses includes massive gaps. Currently, we know of 263 viruses that infect humans, which is less than 0.1 percent of suspected viruses in the world that are infectious to humans. In fact, an estimated 1,670,00 of these undiscovered viruses are carried by birds and mammals, and within that, it’s estimated that between 631,000 and 827,000 of those viruses could infect humans.
As monumental as their task is, researchers at the Project at the very least won’t have to start empty-handed. They will work with information previously obtained by United States Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program. PREDICT is a global surveillance organization that monitors zoonotic diseases, and it has already identified 1,000 unknown viruses.
Unfortunately, the Global Virome Project comes at a time when America is financially unprepared for a severe disease outbreak or pandemic. In the fiscal 2019 budget for CDC, the current administration wants to cut CDC funding by 20%, setting its funding to levels at their lowest since 2003. These anticipated financial concerns are prompting the agency to withdraw from many of the countries the Project works with.
The Global Virome Project’s lifespan is 10 years, which seems an impossibly short amount of time to complete this mission—but any progress they make towards their goal stands to benefit humanity as a whole.