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WSU to lead $125 million USAID project to detect emerging viruses

People in protective suits prepare to conduct tests for MERS-COV.
WSU’s Kariuki Njenga (center) and Tom Kawula (right) work with colleagues to prepare testing for MERS-COV as part of Paul G. Allen School for Global Health's ongoing international work to detect emerging infectious diseases.

PULLMAN, Wash. –  To better identify and prevent future pandemics, WSU has entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to head up a new five-year, approximately $125 million global project.

The USAID Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN project, will build scientific capacity in partner countries to safely detect and characterize unknown viruses which have the potential to spill over from wildlife and domestic animals to human populations.

“To make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, which are likely to happen more frequently as wild areas become increasingly fragmented, we need to be ready,” said Felix Lankester, lead principal investigator for USAID DEEP VZN and associate professor with WSU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Health. “We will work to not only detect viruses but also build capacity in other countries, so the United States can collaborate with them in carrying out this important work.”

The project plans to partner with up to 12 targeted countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to carry out large-scale animal surveillance programs within their own countries, safely, using their own laboratory facilities.

DEEP VZN builds on previous work by significantly scaling up USAID’s efforts to understand where and how viruses spill over from animals to humans. With more than 70 percent of viral outbreaks in people originating from animals, understanding future threats helps protect the U.S. as well as the global community.

The project will focus on finding previously unknown pathogens from three viral families that have a large potential for viral spillover from animals to humans: coronaviruses, the family that includes SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19; filoviruses, such as the Ebola virus; and paramyxoviruses which includes the viruses that cause measles and Nipah.

The goals are ambitious: to collect over 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, most of which will come from wildlife; then to detect whether viruses from the target families are present in the samples. When those are found, the researchers will determine the zoonotic potential of the viruses, or the ability to transfer from animals to humans.

This process is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel viruses, which researchers will then screen and sequence the genomes of the ones that pose the most risk to animal and human health.

To meet these goals, WSU will draw on the strengths of a consortium of partners including the virology expertise of University of Washington and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis as well as data management and in-country expertise of public health nonprofits PATH and FHI 360. WSU along with their partners have established presence in countries in the target regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

WSU will also draw on its own strengths in veterinary medicine and on-the-ground expertise from the Allen School for Global Health, which has done extensive work on infectious disease transmission globally.

“Our approach is to collaborate with in-country partners, working side-by-side with their scientists and institutions.” said Tom Kawula, director of WSU’s Allen School for Global Health. “Our consortium partners help extend our reach and have the same philosophy of working with the people as well as existing structures and expertise in each country.”   One of the consortium’s first tasks is to select the exact countries for DEEP-VZN based on their high risk for emerging infectious disease, capacity to safely conduct viral discovery work and commitment to share data with global partners.

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