Project PREDICT: The world is now in uncharted territory when it comes to infectious diseases. We’re facing a whole new era. Over the past century, the number of new infectious diseases cropping up each year has nearly quadrupled.
The number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled. In the U.S., we have seen more than a dozen new human diseases appear over the past 25 years.
For instance, a killer tick-borne virus showed up in Kansas in 2014.
A new type of leprosy dismembered a man in Arizona in 2002. And a new hemorrhagic fever jumped from rodents into people, killing three women in California in 1999 — to name just a few.
Part of a $200 million project called PREDICT, sponsored by the U.S. government and led by University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
The goal is to figure out the viruses that are lurking inside animals around the world. So we are ready when a new and potentially harmful virus jumps from animals into people and causes an outbreak.
Virus hunter Kevin Oliva wants to find the next pandemic virus before it finds us.
Bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They carry a daunting list of killer viruses. They triggered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. They very likely launched a pandemic of killer pneumonia back in 2003, called SARS. And they’re behind one of the viruses scientists think could cause a nasty pandemic: Nipah.
Bats carry viruses all over their bodies. In their spit. Their blood. And their poop. Because they fly, bats can spread these viruses across huge distances. So when there are bats in the sky, there could be Ebola in the poop that lands on your shoulder.
So far, Olival and Lee’s team have trapped and sampled more than 1,300 animals in Malaysia. Globally, the PREDICT team has sampled more than 74,000 animals.
Not everyone is a fan of the project. Some infectious disease scientists think creating a long list of viruses isn’t very helpful. They say money could be better spent on diseases we actually have now instead of trying to guess which ones might become a problem someday.
And even if scientists could predict when an outbreak is likely to happen, it might not, says Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis.
“I don’t think the actual premise for the PREDICT project — that it will make us better prepared for a pandemic — holds water,” Osterholm says.
For example, in 2012 scientists predicted that the deadly H5N1 flu was about to jump from birds into people. “Did we do anything to prepare, like make a new or better flu vaccine?” Osterholm asks. “No.”
We’re not even making vaccines for viruses that we know are threats, that are regularly killing people, he says. “How are we going to convince people to invest money into a virus from the remote jungle for which we have no evidence that it has caused any human illness?”
“We’ve found 48 new viruses in Malaysia. And 16 that were already known,” There’s a new polio-like virus in orangutans. A bunch of new herpes viruses in monkeys, rodents and bats.
And that’s just in Malaysia.
Teams with PREDICT have been sampling in rain forests around the world for seven years and found nearly 1,000 new viruses in more than 20 countries, such as a new rabies-like virus in shrews. And many, many SARS-like viruses in bats across three continents.
And then Olival drops a bombshell.
“These viruses aren’t ‘new,’ ” he says. “They’re just new to science. But not to the animals in the forest,” he adds.
All these viruses have been circulating in bats, monkeys and rodents for tens of thousands of years, maybe longer, he says, and no one has cared. No one has noticed. They’re just a natural part of the ecosystem of the rain forest, coexisting with the animals, who are generally not harmed by the viruses.
Before the palm oil boom in the 1980s, pristine forest was still intact.
Filled with animals and their viruses, Olival explains. But then people came along and started cutting down the forest. Destroying their homes.
It’s like puncturing a balloon filled with viruses, says Barbara Han, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. “Whatever survives, spills out. Deforestation is closely tied to disease emergence.”
Right now, only 15 percent of the world’s rain forests is still intact. The rest has been burned flat. Broken into pieces. Or converted into farms, ranges for cattle, metal mines — even shopping malls.
Wild animals are now refugees. They have no home. So they come live in our backyards. They pee on our crops. Share our parks and playgrounds. Giving their viruses a chance to jump into us and make us sick.
“So it’s really the human impact on the environment that’s causing these viruses to jump into people,” Olival says.
Or is it?
My question is why has the U.S. government invested $200 million in this project to collect new viruses but no vacines?