The Global Virome Project Is Hunting Hundreds of Thousands of Deadly Viruses

An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 viral species could jump from animals to humans, and researchers hope to identify and counter them before they become the next pandemic.

A researcher displays Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. | Diego Herculano/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A researcher displays Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. | Diego Herculano/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In virology, as in sports, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

This week, an international team of scientists and front-line physicians launched a major new global initiative to prevent the next viral pandemic. The strategy: to hunt down potentially deadly viruses in animal populations before they jump species and infect humans.

It's an ambitious plan, but researchers backing the Global Virome Project believe it can be done — and can pay additional research benefits along the way. In a report published last month in the journal Science, the authors drop some crazy numbers.

An estimated 1.6 million viral species are yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations. Of those, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 may have the capacity to jump species and cause diseases in humans. That's a lot of viral trouble.

But by studying the disease vectors of previous outbreaks like Ebola, SARS, and Zika, scientists believe they can eventually track down all potentially dangerous viruses before they spill over into human populations. Ideally, the GVP's aggressive approach will essentially stop outbreaks before they even start.

“I think what's important and exciting is that we now have the tools and the ability to know as much about viruses as we do about bacteria and other disease-causing organisms,” said Jonna Mazet, an author of the report and executive director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis. “They were just a little bit tougher problem to crack than other pathogens that cause death and destruction.”

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For the last eight years, Mazet has served as director of the PREDICT program, a similar but smaller-scale initiative operated by the United States Agency for International Development. The PREDICT program has found more than 1,000 unique viruses in animals and humans.

“PREDICT showed us that we are ready to do this on a much larger scale,” Mazet told Seeker. “It served as a proof of concept.”

A core concept of both the PREDICT program and the Global Virome Project, Mazet said, is that scientists must broaden their approach to disease prevention.

“The idea is to think about people, animals, and the environment all at once,” she said. “That approach helps us to find viruses in the first place and understand their potential for spilling over. Then we can design interventions.”

The GVP program is already being compared to another ambitious global research effort — the Human Genome Project. Mazet believes that the GVP, like HGP, is a chance for the world's scientists to join together and make a great leap forward.

“It's just the right time,” she said. “We can know, and we should know this. The HGP was also a big audacious goal that looked to be financially and technologically insurmountable to outside observers. But form the inside the science community, we knew we could do this.”

The first stage of GVP research is dedicated to identifying and cataloging unknown viruses, which will then be used, ideally, to develop vaccines, pharmaceuticals, or other. The GVP will work with the United Nations, dozens of international health organizations, local governments, and industry partners such as Merck.

“And then, of course, individual scientists are pitching in from all over the world —Asia, Africa, the US, Canada, and Europe ” Mazet said.

Latin America, in particular, has contributed a good deal of resources following the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic.

“Brazil has been a major player in all this effort,” Mazet said. “They've been very sensitized after their experiences with Zika.”

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Backers of the GVP project contend that the overarching goal of the program is fundamentally change the way the global health community responds to viral outbreaks.

“To date, emphasis has been placed on reducing the impact of diseases after they have emerged — a reactive approach,” the authors write on the GVP project page. “Success in preventing pandemics and the uncontrolled spread of epidemics requires thinking and acting differently. Rapid and revolutionary advances in health science and technology allow us to imagine a world without the threat of novel pandemics. We must move forward to be proactive and prepare before a pandemic occurs.”

For Mazet, it's all about moving the line of engagement with viral outbreaks.

“We have to stop chasing the last virus that just attacked our community, and instead get prepared in advance.”