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Global Virome Project Will Spend Next 10 Years Identifying Unknown Viruses in the Wild

MAR 15, 2018 | EINAV KEET
Following recent outbreaks of viruses such as Zika and Ebola, public health researchers are increasingly working to discover new viruses before they emerge and cause human outbreaks. To meet that goal, this year will mark the launch of the Global Virome Project.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published its priority list of diseases and pathogens in need of research and development in 2018. Along with viruses such as Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, and Zika, last on that list is Disease X, which the WHO says represents the understanding that a currently unknown pathogen may emerge to cause a serious global epidemic in the human population. While the inclusion of Disease X has been somewhat controversial, it reflects the growing belief that rather than waiting for the emergence of a new pathogen to react, the public health community needs to find the next viral threats and prepare for them before they cause human pandemics.

In a study published in 2017, researchers suggested that the most likely place to discover emerging pathogens would be along the fault lines of human-animal interaction. To that end, a new paper published in the journal Science has announced the impending launch of the Global Virome Project in 2018 to find unknown diseases in the wild, an effort expected to take 10 years and cost $1.2 billion. The project was first announced in 2016 as a proposed cooperative scientific initiative to identify and characterize 99% of the world’s zoonotic viruses with the potential to cause human epidemics.

“Nearly all recent pandemics have a viral etiology with animal origins, and with their intrinsic capacity for interspecies transmission, viral zoonoses are prime candidates for causing the next great pandemic,” write the paper’s authors. “However, if these viruses are our enemy, we do not yet know our enemy very well.”

The Global Virome Project follows in the footsteps of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) work to preemptively mitigate pandemic threats. While the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) PREDICT project has already found 1,000 viruses from viral families that contain zoonotic diseases, the Global Virome Project aims to do so at a larger scale. The authors note that about 263 viruses from 25 viral families are known to infect humans but estimate that there are 1.67 million viral species yet to be discovered in mammal and bird hosts, which are key reservoirs in viral zoonoses. About 631,000 to 827,000 of these unknown viruses have the potential to be transmitted from animals to infect humans.

“Furthermore, the rate of zoonotic viral spillover into people is accelerating, mirroring the expansion of our global footprint and travel networks, leading to a nonlinear rise in pandemic risk and an exponential growth in their economic impacts,” the authors write.

This underscores the need for better preparation; to better prepare, more knowledge is needed. 

“By developing an exhaustive catalog of viruses that exist in wildlife and knowing in what animals and where they exist will enable us to move forward to be proactive and prepare before an outbreak occurs. To achieve this, we must fill the knowledge gap for unknown viruses, including their ecology and drivers,” said Edward Rubin, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer of Metabiota, in an interview with Contagion®. “Having a better understanding of the vast majority of the genomes of viruses that exist in nature will enable us to approach viral diseases and the development of countermeasures in new and powerful ways,” he added.
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