EcoHealth Alliance Receives NIH Grant for Collaborative Research to Disrupt Bat Coronavirus Spillover and Spread in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam 

March 30 2023 – EcoHealth Alliance recently received a new grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the U. S. National Institutes of Health to analyze behavioral and environmental risk factors behind the spillover of coronaviruses (CoVs) from bats into people in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam; identify wildlife-to-human spillover events before they amplify; assess the risk and drivers of community transmission and spread; and identify strategies to prevent this from happening. This study will sample an estimated 3000 – 5000 bats, targeted in areas where people have been identified as likely to be exposed to bat CoVs. It will also sample other mammals for investigation, based on reported interactions with people who have been exposed to bat CoVs, or by their proximity to the communities where exposed people live. This will help identify the potential role of other wildlife as intermediate hosts in the transmission of bat CoVs – and may also help to shed light on the origins of SARS-CoV-2.  EcoHealth Alliance will be working in collaboration with research sites in the countries of interest, including the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit – Hanoi (Hanoi, Vietnam), the National Health Laboratory (Yangon, Myanmar), the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department (Taunggyi, Myanmar), the Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore, for technical support on serology assays and viral characterization), and the Lao-Oxford Mahosot Hospital Wellcome Trust Research Unit (Vientiane, Laos).  

Why are these questions of relevance to global public health? Two major infectious diseases of wildlife origin have emerged in Asia in the last two decades. Both likely began as zoonotic spillover events but were not identified until significant community spread made control difficult. In the case of COVID-19, this spillover led to a global pandemic. This study will explore key questions about the background rate of zoonotic spillover in communities in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam that have frequent contact with wildlife. It will also help us understand how social structure, spatial connectivity among communities and clinics, and human mobility affect the risk of exposure leading to community spread. Can we then use these data to refine risk maps to target public health interventions better? And can future potential SARS- and COVID-like events be detected and disrupted at the earliest stages of community spread? These are critical questions to understand if the world is to be better prepared to prevent future pandemics from emerging. 

Because of the intense public interest in coronavirus research, EcoHealth Alliance has taken the unusual step of releasing the full proposal of our new R01 grant from NIAID, “Analyzing the potential for future bat coronavirus emergence in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam (RO1AI163118).” Normally, grant proposals are sent to federal agencies for review and, if the proposal is funded, they are not usually made public because they contain plans of work that will happen over the subsequent five years, with details of budgets, staffing and planned collaborations that public disclosure might jeopardize. 

However, in an effort to help provide an accurate understanding of the research, and with the aim of being transparent about the study’s goals, EcoHealth Alliance has  published the full proposal and associated communications with the NIH, as well as a web summary of the aims of the work, and of its importance for global public health. Names and personal details of some of our in-country collaborators are not being published, in the interests of their safety and privacy, but the full details of all proposed research are being released now.

The prime goal of this project is to identify in what countries and in which communities coronaviruses might spill over next from wildlife to people, so that we can work with those communities, and the governments in these emerging disease hotspots, to reduce the risk of that happening in the future. This will benefit not only the people on the frontline of disease emergence, but also citizens in the USA and around the world – if we can help stop a disease from spilling over in southeast Asia, we might be able to help stop the next pandemic from spreading and disrupting millions of lives elsewhere in  the world.  

We hope you will take the time to read our detailed description of this project, which lays out why it’s important to study these questions in emerging hotspots like Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. If you do, you will see clearly that this work does not involve animal experiments, nor does it involve recombinant virus technology, dual use research of concern, or experiments intended to enhance the virulence or transmissibility of human pathogens (so-called “gain of function” research). The research in this study will be focused exclusively on bat coronaviruses, to understand how, when, and under what conditions they are likely to spillover from bats to other mammals, including humans. All fieldwork will be conducted by highly trained and experienced researchers, using full and appropriate PPE, with field veterinary and biosafety oversight. Laboratory research will be conducted in labs at the appropriate biosafety level, audited by EcoHealth Alliance on a regular basis following strict rules for such research. 

The results of this work will be made public rapidly through scientific peer-reviewed  papers, preprints, and by uploading genetic sequences to NIH’s publicly available Genbank and other databases. We look forward to conducting this critical work to  contribute to developing the knowledge that will enable the global community to prevent  the next pandemic – a central element of EcoHealth Alliance’s core mission.