WSU begins project to detect new viruses

WSU’s Kariuki Njenga (center) and Tom Kawula (right) work with colleagues to prepare testing for MERS-COV as part of Paul G. Allen School for Global Health's ongoing international work to detect emerging infectious diseases.

Researchers at Washington State University recently began a $125 million project to help identify and prevent future pandemics with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The five-year project will collaborate with as many as 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to identify previously unknown pathogens with a high potential to spread from animals to humans, a phenomenon known as spillover. Scientific and institutional partners within each country will safely conduct large-scale animal surveillance programs in their own laboratories.

According to Tom Kawula, director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the goal of the project is also to develop infrastructure in each country it chooses to work with.

“We’re not going to drop in, do a bunch of analyses, say ‘thank you’ and leave,” he said. “When we do international work, we partner with people in the countries we’re working in to help them build infrastructure and talent. Our goal is to stay.”

The project will focus on uncovering zoonotic diseases from three viral families, including coronaviruses, filoviruses and paramyxoviruses, in environments that are ripe for spillover.

Most people are now aware of coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, filoviruses and paramyxoviruses have also been known to cause lethal outbreaks as well. The Ebola virus is from the filovirus family, and diseases like measles and mumps are caused by paramyxoviruses.

“We know there’s certain families of viruses that have a higher potential to spillover,” Kawula said. “For example, coronaviruses – everyone knows about coronaviruses now.”

Zoonotic diseases are very common in the U.S. and around the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists estimate that three out of every four emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.

The lead principal investigator for the project, Felix Lankester, is an associate professor at WSU’s School for Global Health.

“To make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, which are likely to happen more frequently as wild areas become increasingly fragmented, we need to be ready,” Lankester said in a news release from the university.

When a virus mutates within its own host, it typically dies out. But if the virus happens to come into contact with a host from another species, it tends to evolve.

The more a virus evolves, Kawula says, the more opportunities it has to proliferate.

“The more knowledge we have about them, the more predictive and reactive we can be with mitigation strategies,” he said.

Some of those strategies include the rapid development of vaccines. While the rest of the world may only now be tuning in to this sort of research, he says many scientists have long been interested in the way viruses are transmitted.

With the current study, researchers hope to collect over 800,000 samples from wildlife. Once those are captured, they’ll analyze the samples to develop better methods of predicting when viruses are capable of causing diseases or outbreaks.

“We’re doing functional analysis,” Kawula said. “The idea is to be more predictive, not just to find more viruses and what they are.”

Palermo can be reached at or on Twitter @apalermotweets.

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