Why Is America Pulling Back Those Tracking Future Pandemics? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Is the world prepared to pull down its watchtowers against future invading armies of contagious, fatal viruses?

By Rishika Pardikar

Look at the steeply rising number of cases and the panicked responses of governments around the world, and it’s easy to conclude we had no clue we could be hit by the coronavirus pandemic. But a critical international program that the U.S. launched in 2009 has in fact helped experts in America and elsewhere forecast and prepare for viruses transmitted by animals to humans for a decade now.

The problem? It’s on the ropes, its future uncertain, right when the world needs such projects more than ever. And that needs to change — unless the world is prepared to pull down its watchtowers against future invading armies of similarly contagious and fatal viruses.

PREDICT, launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development to “strengthen global capacity for detection and discovery of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential,” has since 2009 discovered around 1,200 viruses that have the potential to infect people and cause epidemics — including more than 160 coronaviruses. It has strengthened capacity for viral detection and discovery in 60 laboratories across 30 countries, improving their field surveillance, biosafety and security, as well as wildlife conservation efforts. The team has sampled more than 10,000 bats and around 2,000 other mammals to discover 52 novel SARS-CoVs — a species of coronaviruses. They include the closest relative of the Wuhan virus responsible for COVID-19, says Jonna Mazet, professor of epidemiology at University of California, Davis, who is also director emeritus and principal investigator at PREDICT.

“Our collaboration with the PREDICT country coordinator for China provided critical data” on the family that the Wuhan coronavirus belongs to, Mazet says. Through the warning signs that emerged from the team’s research, she says, “PREDICT helped raise the flag that these viruses have pandemic potential.” 

But in September 2019, the Trump administration stopped funding for the project, forcing PREDICT programs around the world to shut down. Researchers on the team like Mazet “are now working on the COVID-19 situation,” she says — they’ve been given a one-year extension that will end later this year.

PREDICT has spent $200 million in finding new viruses. … Compare that to the $40 billion that the world spent in containing the SARS outbreak and dealing with its economic fallout.

Just how important is such cutting-edge research into zoonotic diseases, which transmit from animals to humans? You don’t need to look far back for answers. Like COVID-19 — which possibly originated in bats and spread to humans via pangolins — AIDS originated in chimpanzees, Ebola in bats or apes and SARS (which killed nearly 800 people in the 2002-04 outbreak) in civets. Overall, three-quarters of all infectious diseases that have affected humans have been zoonotic. These diseases are responsible for 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million deaths worldwide each year.

The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. — in red — and how it compares with America’s losses in modern wars.

PREDICT has spent $200 million in finding new viruses, says Mazet. Compare that to the $40 billion that the world spent in containing the SARS outbreak and dealing with its economic fallout. The COVID-19 sum will be exponentially higher.

Of course, PREDICT can be refined and made even better. Now is a good time to “review and reflect on the outputs of the program to see if and how things can be improved,” says Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at the Zoological Society of London. Until now, he says, PREDICT has focused on finding viruses, but not adequately on tracking the likelihood of their transmission from animals to humans. It’s “much more helpful to look at human angles like what species people are interacting with, how are they interacting with them and in which parts of the world, and then study the viruses that are most likely to emerge in these conditions,” Cunningham says.

But doing away with the program won’t improve it. Thankfully, senior lawmakers are starting to ask questions. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Angus King wrote to USAID on Jan. 30 questioning the move to shut down PREDICT. On Feb. 4, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote to USAID Administrator Mark Green asking that the program be reinstated.

That was before the full force of the pandemic had hit us. The impact of the coronavirus only strengthens the case for funding scientific research into zoonotic outbreaks, say experts like Mazet. “I absolutely believe that PREDICT’s work — whether as PREDICT or an iteration — should continue,” she says. “[Without a proactive approach], we will forever be in this chaotic crisis-response mode, chasing what we should have been ready for, losing lives and livelihoods along the way.”

The world can’t afford that.

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