#3: Predictive Map Identifies Which Species are Likely to Harbor the Next Human Virus
Based on bat population estimates, the EcoHealth Alliance researchers have identified South and Central America as well as parts of Asia as hotspots of so-called “missing zoonoses,” or currently undiscovered viruses that could be passed along to humans. Although these hotspots have been documented in color-coded heat-maps developed by the team, they emphasize that bats’ potential role as transmitters of viruses ultimately depends on the level of contact they have with humans—including any activity that alters their habitat (such as development) or disturbs their ecology (such as hunting).
The findings also document a similar potential role for primates in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia—and map areas of possible heightened risk for disease emergence and host-to-human transmission. In general, the authors believe that conservation efforts designed to protect potential host species can help reduce the risk for zoonotic disease, at least in part by serving to limit human-host interactions. Future projects by the EcoHealth Alliance team will involve targeting field surveillance efforts around the world to identify emerging disease threats in both animals and humans.
Learn more about the predictive map, here
#2: Mail-Ordering Your Way to Horsepox
The online shopping industry is booming and it looks like mail-order pathogens for scientific experiments may be following suit. In fact, Canadian researchers, led by virologist David Evans, PhD, recently announced that they had synthesized horsepox virus through mail-order DNA. Although the team is small and has little specialized knowledge, half a year and $100,000 allowed them to build a cousin of smallpox.
As you can imagine, this experiment and its results are getting a lot of attention for several reasons. Firstly, anything done with a relative of variola (smallpox) implies that the experiment would also be successful with smallpox. This fact alone is a heated topic given the debate around the safety and potential destruction of the last remaining smallpox samples. Secondly, Dr. Evans’ research underscores another ongoing debate regarding dual-use research of concern (DURC). DURC applies to research that can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technology that could pose a threat.) Thirdly, this experiment highlights potential gaps within oversight of the life sciences.
Although Dr. Evans’ horsepox experiment has not been officially published yet, it is already drawing controversy for the aforementioned reasons. Dr. Evans’ work with horsepox is a reminder of the experiments that first drew attention to DURC, such as one in which the poliovirus was reconstituted from scratch. Not only does this horsepox experiment highlight the debate regarding the oversight of life sciences in terms of DURC, it also highlights other research that could increase gain-of-function (GoF). (The reader may remember that GoF research has come under fire after several studies showed GoF research enhanced pandemic potential, resulting in a halt to federal funding for GoF research until guidelines could be established.)
Continue reading about how one researcher mailed-ordered horsepox, here