In late July of 2016, more than a dozen Liberian researchers set up a makeshift lab at the edge of the rainforest in their nation’s northern Nimba County, which shares the border with Guinea. Liberia is home to more than 40 percent of West Africa’s forests and houses some of the world’s rarest animal species, including the Liberian mongoose and pygmy hippos. But Jackson Poultolnor and the other researchers, all clad in rubber boots, N95 masks, face shields, leather welding gloves, and Tyvek suits, were there for bats.
Bats have been a source of food in Africa and other parts of the planet for thousands of years. When Poultolnor was a child, his mother prepared the meat in a sweet stew for him and his eight siblings. But the mammal is also a reservoir of pathogens and believed to be the source of the 2013 Ebola virus outbreak, which led to more than 11,000 deaths across this region. So Poultolnor and his team ventured into the dense vegetation to bind mist nets to trees in order to capture and study the animal. It was Liberia’s first wildlife-surveillance operation, and it was conducted as a part of Predict, an organization launched in 2009 by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats program to monitor infectious diseases.
Since the organization’s inception, American epidemiologists and sociologists have trained over 6,000 researchers in more than 30 developing countries to seek out zoonotic diseases in wildlife and collaborate with local officials to head off new outbreaks. Predict teams across the globe have discovered over 1,100 new viruses, including Ebola viruses and SARS-like coronaviruses.
In January 2019, after sampling over 5,000 bats every two weeks for more than two years, the Liberian Predict team found one that tested positive for Ebola. It was the first time the type of Ebola virus responsible for the 2013 epidemic was detected in a Liberian bat. The discovery could help scientists learn more about how that virus infected humans and, by extension, how to prevent other zoonotic diseases with pandemic potential from spreading.
At the heart of the Predict project are the principles laid out by the One Health Initiative, which seeks to foster collaborations between professionals in various science fields that will benefit the well-being of humans, animals, and the environment.
It’s an all-in-one philosophy that has deep historical roots. Hinduism’s ahimsa dictates that all living things are sacred because they are part of God and the natural world. Totemism, popular among may African tribes, posits a kinship between humans and wildlife. Similarly, One Health, which was started by veterinarians and doctors in the United States in 2007, looks to understand the human-wildlife interface, encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations in governent and academia, discouraging human encroachment on natural habitats, and calling for the extensive surveillance of pathogens.
There are over 1.6 million viruses lurking in animal hosts across the globe, and more than 650,000 have the potential to infect people, according to researchers at the One Health Institute at the University of California at Davis. In fact, nearly 75 percent of the diseases affecting humans today stem from wildlife. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the current pandemic, is thought to have originated in bats and believed to have been transmitted to humans via wild animals for sale at an open-air market in Wuhan, China.
In addition to the vast number of viruses, scientists at the One Health Institute say that viruses are also mutating faster than ever. Urbanization and climate change, as well as activities like logging, poaching, and animal trafficking, have shrunk and fragmented natural habitats, which in turn has led to increased contact between humans and wildlife and more opportunities for viral mutation.
“Trying to find these viruses in the wild is like finding a needle in a haystack,” says James Desmond, an American field veterinarian who was appointed by the Obama administration to lead Predict in Liberia. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless to try. Although it cost $20 million to operate Predict each year, some have estimated that the current COVID-19 outbreak could cost the world $10 trillion. A future pandemic could cost much more.
Though Predict failed to identify the virus that results in COVID-19, a Predict-supported publication by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology back in 2015 warned about “the likelihood of future bat coronavirus emergence in humans” in China and Southeast Asia.
On April 1, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 surpassed one million in the U.S. and three million worldwide, Predict received $2.26 million for a six-month extension from USAID to focus on the coronavirus. But the money was far from enough to host teams in different countries. Luckily, in May, USAID announced a new project: set to launch this September, STOP Spillover will leverage the data collected by Predict to develop interventions that will reduce the risk of the transmission of dangerous pathogens passing from animals to people.
For too long, when it comes to disease outbreaks, there’s been a cycle of panic (as threats ramp up) and neglect (when they subside), says Tierra Smiley Evans, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the One Health Institute. She hopes this pandemic will result in something different. “We can’t leave a single country out in understanding the importance of the connection between human and animal health and working together on the prevention of the next pandemic,” she says. “Through the tragedy that is happening now to the planet, I hope we come out stronger on the other end.”