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Predictive Map Identifies Which Species are Likely to Harbor the Next Human Virus

JUL 11, 2017 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
Want to know where the next infectious disease outbreak will come from? To paraphrase the popular saying, “There may be an app for that.” Sort of.
 
Researchers from the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance have developed a predictive “map” that identifies the zoonotic host species that are “likely to harbor the next human virus” and documents the regions of the world where they can be found. Their findings were published on June 23, 2017 in the journal Nature.
 
“Our article strives to tackle questions regarding zoonotic disease risk that haven’t been tackled extensively to date, including why these diseases are emerging and where they may emerge in the future,” Kevin J. Olival, PhD, associate vice president, research at EcoHealth Alliance told Contagion®. “Emerging diseases make for great headlines because there is that fear factor. However, the fact is zoonotic diseases have been increasing from decade to decade, and we are seeing more of these events globally. The impact is real and the potential threat is real.”
 
The nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance bills itself as a global organization “working at the intersection of environmental, animal, and public health.” For the Nature project, which received funding as part of USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT initiative, Dr. Olival, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and his colleagues created a database of the nearly 600 viruses that have been known to infect more than 750 mammal species. Using this database, they developed mathematical models to identify the characteristics of host species capable of transmitting these zoonotic viruses to humans.
 
Among other factors, the team found that zoonotic potential is predicted by how closely related the host species is to humans in terms of evolutionary development (“phylogenetic relatedness”), the taxonomic order the species belongs to, and the human population within the host species range, which they believe may convey the amount of possible human-to-wildlife contact. Overall, the team found that, among mammals, bats harbor the highest proportion of zoonotic viruses.


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