Washington University partners with USAID to better identify and prevent future pandemics

To better identify and prevent future pandemics, the University of Washington has partnered with a five-year global collaborative agreement with the US Agency for International Development. The new Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, or DEEP VZN, project has planned funding of approximately $ 125 million and will be led by Washington State University.

The effort will strengthen the scientific capacities of partner countries to safely detect and characterize viruses that can spread from wildlife and domestic animals to human populations.

“The DEEP VZN project offers an exciting chance to better understand why the world is experiencing more frequent and severe outbreaks of zoonotic infectious diseases transmitted between animals and humans,” said Dr Peter Rabinowitz, co-principal investigator of the USAID DEEP VZN and Professor of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health at UW School of Public Health and Professor of Family Medicine at UW School of Medicine.

“It means gaining knowledge about new viruses that could cause problems in the future, and the ecosystem changes that appear to be behind the process of virus jumping between species,” Rabinowitz added. “The hope is that this better understanding will lead to the prevention of future pandemics and more resilient ecosystems.”

Rabinowitz is also director of the UW Center for One Health Research and co-director of the UW Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness.

The project initially plans to partner with five countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to help local organizations conduct large-scale animal surveillance programs in their own countries safely and test samples. viruses using their own laboratory facilities. This will avoid having to ship samples to other countries for testing and create an international network of laboratories able to respond quickly to outbreaks.

Since the vast majority of viruses that trigger pandemics originate in non-human animals, it is essential that we determine which of the many new zoonotic viruses we are currently identifying are most likely to transmit species to humans, to spread easily from person to person. and cause serious illness or death.

Dr Judith Wasserheit, Co-Principal Investigator and Chair, Department of Global Health, University of Washington

“The UW Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness focuses on a proactive and integrated systems approach to pandemic preparedness that has brought together internationally recognized leaders in the types of laboratory methods that will enable the DEEP VZN team to sequence and characterize fully new viruses under unprecedented conditions. breadth and depth, ”said Wasserheit, Alliance Co-Director. “In addition, the Alliance’s approach has catalyzed collaborations between these laboratory scientists; One Health executives working at the interface of human, animal and environmental health; and global health leaders who will work with colleagues in target countries to identify high-risk locations and subpopulations at the human-animal interface. “

The DEEP VZN project will focus on finding previously unknown pathogens from three viral families that have great potential for viral spread from animals to humans: coronaviruses, the family that includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19; filoviruses, such as Ebola virus; and paramyxoviruses, such as the Nipah virus. With 70% of new human viral outbreaks of animal origin, understanding future threats helps protect the United States as well as partner countries.

The objectives are ambitious: to collect more than 800,000 samples over the five years of the project, most of which will come from wildlife; then to detect whether known and new viruses of the target families are present in the samples. When these are found, researchers will determine their zoonotic potential, or the ability to spread between animals and humans.

This process is expected to produce 8,000 to 12,000 new viruses, which the researchers will then select and perform genome sequencing for those posing the greatest risk to animal and human health.

The UW Medicine lab effort, led by Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, will use the cutting-edge research expertise of five recognized UW Medicine labs. internationally to develop innovative techniques and provide reference and support activities for virus detection and characterization by participating laboratories in Africa, Asia and South America.

“It’s time to get down to business and find some new viruses,” Greninger said. “We will build capacity in other countries to be able to find new viruses and characterize them in the hope of better understanding coronaviruses and other viruses circulating around the world.”

The roles of UW Medicine laboratories in this project are as follows:

  • The Greninger laboratory of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology will coordinate qRT-PCR and the development of large-scale serological tests and training in the country, viral genome recovery and characterization of viral glycoproteins.
  • The David Baker Lab at the Institute for Protein Design will model novel viral glycoproteins to determine risk potential based on in silico screens for the potential affinity of human receptors.
  • The David Veesler laboratory of the Department of Biochemistry has detailed the attachment and viral entry mechanisms for new paramyxoviruses and coronaviruses and will extend these biochemical studies to new viral glycoproteins discovered in zoonotic viruses identified in the project.
  • The Michael Gale Jr. laboratory in the Department of Immunology will determine the degree and mechanisms of the escape of innate immunity in human cells by new viruses.
  • The Wes Van Voorhis laboratory in the Department of Medicine, Division of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, will produce recombinant proteins for serological analysis in the country, as it did for SARS-CoV-2.

UW’s Department of Global Health will apply its experience in over 145 countries and expertise in capacity building through the International Center for Health Education and Training, or I-TECH, to support the sustainable sampling and strengthen national laboratory programs.

In addition to UW and WSU, USAID DEEP VZN includes virology expertise from the University of Washington in St. Louis, as well as data management and in-country expertise from public health nonprofit organizations PATH. , based in Seattle, and FHI 360, based in North Carolina. . These partners have a presence and well-established partners in the countries of the target regions.

“To make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, which are likely to occur more frequently as wilderness areas become more and more fragmented, we need to be prepared,” said Felix Lankester, researcher USAID DEEP VZN Principal and Associate Professor. with WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Health. “We will work not only to detect viruses, but also to build capacity in other countries, so that the United States can work with them in doing this important work.”


Washington University School of Medicine

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