The NIH Launches a Global Hunt for Animal-to-Human Diseases
To do their new work within CREID, they recruited a slate of partners: three institutes in Panama and Brazil, and in the United States, MIT and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York State. The co-principal investigator, Katherine Hanley, is a professor of virus evolutionary ecology at New Mexico State University.
That geographic reach is typical of the new project, in which 10 US grant recipients and one in Paris are forming their own mini-networks internationally. For instance, Washington State University’s Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases-East and Central Africa (CREID-ECA) is collaborating with Emory University in Atlanta and with institutes in Germany, Belgium, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. University of Washington’s United World Antiviral Research Network (the acronym is, yes, UWARN) is working with universities in Brazil, Senegal, South Africa, Pakistan and Taipei.
It’s interesting to see the US administration make this investment, given that the Trump White House has to this point been uninterested in pandemic planning or international cooperation. Consider that last year, the White House made personnel changes that led to dissolution of the National Security Council’s “pandemic unit,” formally the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. And last fall the administration ended future funding for a pioneering project called Predict that detected viruses at the human-wild interface, which the US Agency for International Development had supported for 10 years. (In March, USAID gave Predict an emergency six-month extension , which is now set to expire this month.)
Plus, throughout the pandemic, the administration has tried to blame China for the coronavirus as leverage in its ongoing trade war, at various points claiming the pathogen was either manufactured there or occurred naturally but escaped in a lab accident. President Donald Trump constantlyuses the phrase “China virus,” and only two weeks ago, the Republican governor of Mississippi insisted, first in a Facebook post and then on Twitter , that the virus was not naturally occurring, writing: “The Chinese Communist Party needs to own the fact they unleashed this virus and lied about it.”
Just one of the new centers will be doing work in China. The Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Disease-Epidemiology, Surveillance, Pathogenesis (CREID-ESP) at Washington University in St. Louis plans to partner with the University of Hong Kong and the China CDC, as well as institutes in California, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Most of their work will be on coronaviruses, with an additional focus on whatever viruses underlie unexplained respiratory diseases, according to principal investigator David Wang, a professor of pathology and immunology.
It’s a familiar landscape for him: He was one of the identifiers of the original SARS virus in 2003. Working in viral characterization since then, and watching the emergence of MERS and the virus behind Covid-19, gives him an acute sense of where surveillance and pandemic prediction falls short—something the new network might remedy.
“We learned almost nothing from SARS,” he says. “It showed us that you need strong public health infrastructure and you have to be prepared for the possibility of rapid dissemination. But we’ve never invested sufficiently in public health, because public health is prevention—and when it works really well, nothing happens.”
Earlier this year, one of the new network’s members ran aground on questions of government investment. In April, the NIH took a five-year, $3.7 million grant to study bat coronaviruses away from a small New York nonprofit, the EcoHealth Alliance, which had been part of Predict, apparently because it was collaborating with the Wuhan Institution of Virology. The cancellation was never fully explained by NIH—emails reviewed by the journal Science showed that an NIH official made unspecified allegations about lab precautions—but it came a week after President Trump learned of the project during a press conference and promised to “end that grant very quickly.”
Author Maryn McKenna