The NIH Launches a Global Hunt for Animal-to-Human Diseases

By Maryn McKenna

On Wednesday, a group of scientists gathered—virtually, of course—to share their research on a video call. At this point in the Covid-19 pandemic, that was utterly normal. What was not at at all normal: The group was launching an international network to detect pathogens that can jump from wildlife to the human population, a field of inquiry that’s become politicized since the coronavirus pandemic began—and they were doing it with federal money, even though the United States government has been the source of the politicization.

The network, known as CREID (for Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases), was announced three weeks ago by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases within the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is investing $17 million this year and $82 million across five years to create 11 research nodes, mostly at US universities, that will spin up research partnerships in 28 other countries—including China, where the current pandemic began.

It’s an odd investment, maybe even a quiet about-face, for an administration that has spent the past nine months casting doubt on the coronavirus’s origins and demonizing the country where people were first affected, variously alleging malign secrecy, lab sloppiness, and malicious intent. Scientists who will be heading the centers are trying not to look too hard at that paradox, choosing instead to focus on the network’s promise: If all goes well, this could establish a worldwide surveillance structure that detects the next pandemic pathogen before it leaps into humans from the wild world.

That would be a good thing. As far back as the first international epidemic of a novel coronavirus, SARS, in 2003, every spillover of a pathogen from wildlife to humans—including the H1N1 avian flu epidemic in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in West Africa in 2014, and Zika in South America in 2016— has come as a surprise. This network could break that pattern.

“We’ve all learned the hard way that every time there is an emergence, that triggers some sort of disorganized scramble,” says Nikos Vasilakis, a professor of pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, who will lead one of the new centers. “This gives us the possibility of a coordinated response, a chance to create a strategically and geographically dispersed network of sites that would be able to forewarn of any disease emergence, whatever that emergence is.”

There are 11 centers—10 research nodes and an operational and data hub at Duke University, up from an originally envisioned three—in order to cover the breadth of the science needed to to detect, identify, understand, and potentially control pathogens in the process of leaping to humans. That requires working in multiple disciplines to understand how a pathogen lives in a host animal, what features allow it to cause infection in people, how human immune systems respond, and what tests and treatments might be developed to detect and block deadly organisms.

It also requires putting research capacity in multiple locations, from the fringes of human settlement where hunters and farmers may be exposed to novel pathogens, to villages where human-to-human transmission begins, and to urban areas where adapted pathogens can find enough hosts to cause explosive outbreaks. Working in that manner requires local collaborators. Having those collaborators also grounds the work in other countries, keeping the research from being extractive and guaranteeing that it will benefit economically developing nations where viruses spill over as much as it will industrialized ones where viruses might spread.

Vasilakis’ research center has been dubbed Create-Neo, which is short for Coordinating Research on Emerging Arboviral Threats Encompassing the Neotropics. (Many of the new centers have amazingly elaborate acronyms.) It will focus on viruses in Central and South America that are carried by mosquitoes and ticks; they include major killers such as yellow fever and Zika. The center grew out of past work that Vasilakis and his colleagues, including his wife Shannan Rossi, an associate professor at UTMB, were doing in Brazil, detecting exposures of monkeys and humans to viruses carried by forest mosquitoes, and detecting how the mosquito populations moved and carried viruses with them.