Preventing the next pandemic: WSU will lead $125M global project to find, analyze animal viruses

WSU researchers Tom Kawula (right), Kariuki Njenga (center), and colleagues work on a project to test for the MERS-COV virus. (WSU Photo)

Washington State University this week launched a new $125 million program to collect and analyze animal viruses with the aim of preventing the next pandemic. The program is funded with an award from the U.S. Agency for International Development and includes researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle-based nonprofit PATH.

The project will partner with up to 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to build up lab capacity for surveillance of animal viruses that have the potential to “spillover” into humans and cause disease.

“I’m excited about this potential of getting better at predicting viral spillover before there’s a pandemic,” Tom Kawula, director of WSU’s Allen School for Global Health, told GeekWire in an interview. “Equally exciting to me is this capacity building in countries.”

The project will survey wildlife and domesticated animals for three families of viruses — coronaviruses, filoviruses (which includes Ebola), and paramyxoviruses (which are in the same family as the measles and Nipah viruses).

The project will emphasize safety. “We will build in the safe handling of samples, that is a huge part of the project,” said Kawula. Researchers will not be working in the lab with the live viruses and will kill them as part of the collection process.

Animals host a vast unknown reservoir of viruses, and occasionally one of them can spark an epidemic in humans. Ebola likely originated with bats, HIV-1 with chimpanzees, and the 2002 SARS virus likely journeyed from bats to civets to humans.

The origins of the virus that causes COVID-19 are still murky and debated by scientists. Many say an animal origin is most likely. But some say there is also a possibility that the virus may have originated as an unintentional accident in a lab studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China, and that scientists don’t have enough information yet to know whether a lab or direct animal origin is more likely.

The debate over the origins of current pandemic has highlighted the need for greater transparency and control over lab experiments on whole, living animal viruses — such as the cultivation of such viruses in human cells. Such risky experiments are not going to be performed in the new program, emphasized Kawula, who is involved in coordinating the project.

Instead, researchers will detect the viruses through DNA analysis, and perform experiments in the lab on noninfectious viral components to assess the potential for human infection. For instance, researchers will assess viral proteins in isolation to see how well they stick to human cells.

Ultimately as the team gathers more information, scientists will be better able to predict the potential to infect humans based on DNA sequence and lab findings. “Part of this will be developing some of those algorithms and the data analysis to try and be more predictive about those that have potential for spillover into the human population,” said Kawula.

And that information could lead to ways to stop such spillover, for instance through the design of ready-to-go vaccines or drugs.

The team aims to collect more than 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, called Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN. The project is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel, previously unknown, viruses for analysis.

The program has parallels with another USAID-funded program, STOP Spillover, which assesses risk factors for animal-to-human disease transmission and implements interventions to stop it.

Kawula and other researchers in the program have experience building up lab capacity and training researchers in other countries, a focus of WSU’s Allen School for Global Health. For example, Kawula’s research group works with partners in northern Kenya to study the evolution of MERS coronaviruses in camels.

DEEP VZN will select partner sites outside the U.S. based on factors such as commitment to data sharing and whether there are lots of interactions between humans and animals in the region. Other partners for the project include Washington University in St. Louis and the nonprofit FHI 360.

Health/life sciences Path Tom kawula Uw Wsu