Zoonotic spell requires more research

For years, infectious disease expert Dennis Carroll has warned about the threat of zoonotic spillover, which is the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans, and he believes it requires a global response.

In Carroll’s view, the COVID-19 outbreak, widely believed to be caused by a virus spread to humans from bats, wasn’t an opportunity to say, “I told you so.” It was an overdue wake-up call. He recently told the scientific publication Nautilus that we have a poor understanding of the ecology of viral threats, and whatever future threats we face are already circulating in wildlife.

Based on research done thus far, we’re only scratching the surface. Carroll has studied infectious diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Agency for International Development, where he formed a program called PREDICT. The purpose of PREDICT was to conduct research into viruses in hiding in the animal kingdom.

Until 2019, when its funding was not renewed, PREDICT received annual federal funding of $15 to $20 million, but Carroll is building on his past work with a new initiative called the Global Virome Project. There still is much to learn because, as Carroll estimates, there are about 1.67 million viruses on Earth, and that includes between 631,000 and 827,000 viruses that could infect people. Not all of them will cause sickness and death, and some actually could play a positive role in human biology, but we need to know more.

Studying the sheer number of them will require much more funding than the small-scale budgets associated with PREDICT, which discovered just over 2,000 viruses over the period of one decade. How much more funding is required? Carroll told Nautilus that it requires roughly $100 million a year, which governments throughout the world could affordably band together and support, especially now that zoonotic spillover is no longer an emerging problem. As COVID-19 demonstrates, it’s here and it can affect economies in every corner of the world.

On an annual basis, $100 million in public funding is a drop in the bucket for more extensive research on viruses, but it will require a pivot by President Trump. Prior to COVID-19, he proposed reducing the CDC’s budget for emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, only to be checkmated by Congress. He could do the nation and the world a favor by getting behind Mr. Carroll’s work, especially with doubts raised about the World Health Organization.