Amazon and Congo Basin Focus of New Emerging Infectious Disease Research Center

Uganda forest

by Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News

The perimeters of the Amazon and Congo Basin forests are highly vulnerable to new and emerging infectious diseases. A new research center, the EpiCenter for Emerging Infectious Disease Intelligence, will focus on these two regions to advance understanding of how viruses emerge and spill over from wildlife to humans. The research aims to improve global preparedness and response for when such events occur.  

This work is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, which awarded the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine $8 million over five years to lead center activities.

The center will be funded under NIAID grant U01AI151814. The award is one of 10 research centers and a coordinating center made by NIAID to establish a network of Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, or CREID, around the globe where emerging and re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks are likely to occur.

Multidisciplinary teams of investigators in the program will conduct pathogen/host surveillance, study pathogen transmission, pathogenesis and immunologic responses in the host, and will develop reagents and diagnostic assays for improved detection for important emerging pathogens and their vectors.

“Our center brings together leading experts in emerging infectious disease surveillance with a One Health approach,” said lead principal investigator Christine Kreuder Johnson, director of the EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics at the UC Davis One Health Institute. “When the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be sure to not let our guard down. We need to expand international collaborations in infectious disease research that integrate human, animal and environmental health.”

Johnson said the center aims to help prevent the spread of emerging diseases by advancing our understanding of how environmental change brings about infectious diseases.

“We hope this effort will facilitate new and exciting research in infectious disease with partners around the world," she added.

Distinct regions, diverse expertise

The center will initiate work to investigate emerging threats with implementing partners in Peru and Uganda. Research in these highly biodiverse regions offers the ability to examine the initial and subsequent stages of viral emergence, starting with animal-to-human spillover in forested areas, and progressing to human-to-human spread in areas along the forest periphery to more urbanized areas where epidemics can take off.

Team members consist of epidemiologists, virologists, entomologists and wildlife veterinarians who have pioneered techniques for surveillance at the animal-human interface. They have investigated Zika and dengue outbreaks in Latin America, Africa and Asia; ebolavirus outbreaks in Africa; and coronaviruses in Asia and Africa.

Surveillance and virus characterization will focus on emerging and re-emerging viral threats in the region, as well as on new viruses that could emerge to cause another pandemic.

The team will draw on their broad experience of collaborating with local and international partners to strengthen infectious disease surveillance and enable rapid responses to outbreaks.

Emerging issues

“You need look no further than COVID-19 to see why we should care about viral emergence that doesn’t necessarily begin on U.S. soil,” said co-principal investigator Lark Coffey, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We know COVID-19 came from a nonhuman species in China and circumnavigated the globe in less than four months. With this project, one major contribution will be improving surveillance capacities in places that could benefit from enhanced detection in the environment and diagnoses in people.”

The program will ramp up surveillance for emerging viral threats in these high priority regions, including “pathogen X,” to help prepare for future epidemics and potential pandemics. The team will focus on collecting and analyzing samples from bats, primates, mosquitoes, rodents and other animals that commonly share viral pathogens with humans. Team members will also work with local clinics and communities to optimize surveillance of human populations at high risk of zoonotic spillover.  

This project will look specifically at zoonotic RNA viruses that are a major threat to people. That includes filoviruses like Ebola and Marburg, which can cause severe hemorrhagic disease, and arboviruses, like Zika and dengue that are spread by mosquito vectors.

“We’ve learned from COVID-19 that we need to be in the best position to prevent and halt pandemics, and I’m proud that UC Davis continues to lead in this work,” said Michael Lairmore, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine. “Our prior experience and One Health approach will ensure that we maximize the impact of the EpiCenter for Emerging Infectious Disease Intelligence.”

The team includes well-established scientific partnerships fostered over more than a decade through the USAID PREDICT program, led by the UC Davis One Health Institute, along with the Uganda Viral Research Institute in Uganda and Pontificia Universidad Católica in Peru. Activities will build on research implemented by co-principal investigator Tierra Smiley Evans on emerging pathogens in collaboration with the Gorilla Doctors program in Uganda, and longstanding research of mosquito-borne viruses in Peru, with co-principal investigators Chris Barker and Amy Morrison in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, and Mariana Leguia at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

Read at UC Davis News

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