Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health

The Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University has received $125 million to lead an international research project on viruses.

PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Health has received $125 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development to work with 12 partner countries to detect and characterize unknown viruses that could spill over from wildlife and domestic animals to people.

The research — called the USAID Discovery and Exploration of Emerging Pathogens-Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN for short — will include countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to carry out large-scale animal surveillance.

It’s the largest federally funded project ever for the university, according to WSU.

The project will focus on finding previously unknown pathogens from three viral families that have a large potential to spill over from animals to humans: coronaviruses, which spawned the COVID-19 virus; filoviruses, which include Ebola; and paramyxoviruses, which include viruses that cause measles and Nipah, a disease that spreads between animals and humans.

DEEP VZN “significantly” scales up USAID’s efforts to understand where and how viruses spill over from animals to humans. More than 70% of viral outbreaks in people originate in animals. Understanding future threats helps protect the U.S. and the global community, according to WSU.

Researchers will collect more than 800,000 samples during the five years of the project, most of which will come from wildlife. They will then determine whether viruses from the target families are present in the samples. When one is found, researchers will determine its ability to transfer from animals to humans.

This research is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel viruses. Researchers will then screen and sequence the genomes of the ones that pose the biggest risks to animal and human health.

Bats, rodents and small carnivores such as civet cats represent the biggest risks, principal investigator Felix Lankester, a WSU associate professor, told the Capital Press.

“We’re talking about the risk of a virus that is endemic in one species moving to become endemic in another species — a virus of bats moving to become a virus of humans through contact the humans are having with those bats,” he said.

Similar research has been underway for 12 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added “a lot more urgency” to the work, Lankester said.

“The most compelling evidence we have suggests that COVID-19 came from wild animals, most likely a bat species, via another host species in between,” he said. “There are very similar coronaviruses circulating in bats in China and Southeast Asia, but it does appear there’s a missing link between the bat and the human we haven’t identified yet.”

The researchers will examine industrialized farming areas in the 12 partner countries. Viral transmission can occur between species when livestock that is living in close confinement and relatively stressed comes into contact with wildlife such as bats, rodents and humans, Lankester said.

“Livestock-rearing facilities will be areas of focus for us,” he said. “We want to better understand what the risks are for viruses emerging from wild animals into livestock and people.”

The research has drawn some criticism, Lankester said.

“There’s some misunderstanding of what we’re doing, that we’re somehow digging things up and thereby making it more likely that these things are going to be released, which is not what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re just collecting samples from animals to see if those viruses are already there.”

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