New Research Predicts Global Patterns of Viral Sharing Among Mammals

NEW YORK – May 8, 2020 – EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization working that the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health, announced new research published today in Nature Communications. Amidst a pandemic caused by a novel zoonotic pathogen, the new study presents a way to predict current and future patterns of viral infection among mammal species globally, and for all known viruses. This broadly applicable model builds on previous work by EcoHealth Alliance examining the diversity of viruses across wild mammal species.

It is of increasing importance that we are able to predict patterns of viral infection in mammals, as outbreaks of these dangerous pathogens are spilling over into humans at a rapidly increasing pace. However, there are few methods available to do so. The study uses a network modeling approach and publicly available data to predict these patterns in a global context, including for the 80 percent of mammal species for which the researchers had no known records of virus infection. These predictive models are especially crucial as deforestation, wildlife trade, and climate change create new opportunities for viruses to move between wildlife species, domestic animals, and people.

"We live in a rapidly changing world and we increasingly need open-source, widely applicable models to help us understand viral sharing," Dr. Greg Albery, a postdoctoral researcher at Georgetown University and lead author on the paper, said. "By quantifying some of these fundamental processes, our work moves us a step toward anticipating and predicting how viruses will behave in the future." Dr. Albery conducted the research with the team at EcoHealth Alliance during a three-month placement as a part of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh.

"As exemplified by emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), we urgently need new tools to rapidly predict where viruses come from and what species may be susceptible," senior author and EcoHealth Alliance Vice President for Research Dr. Kevin Olival said.

The new model displays a surprisingly strong ability to predict reservoir hosts for a given virus and was validated using data from 250 viruses with more than one known wildlife host.

"These findings have enormous potential to better target disease surveillance resources to the species and locations where they are most needed," Dr. Olival said.

Work on this study was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease of the National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Threat Reduction Agency; and the UK National Environmental Research Council (NERC).

About EcoHealth Alliance:
Building on 45 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is the premier nonprofit organization committed to a One Health approach to track the migration of deadly viruses from animals into humans. EcoHealth Alliance research has led to major breakthroughs on the origins and spread of new and emerging diseases like Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Nipah virus. EcoHealth Alliance works globally in hotspot regions where the threat of outbreaks is highest. Through innovations in research, training, capacity building, and policy initiatives, we develop tools and interventions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation.
Press contact: Robert Kessler, (646) 868-4711 or kessler@ecohealthalliance.org.

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