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USAID announces new five-year project to detect unknown viruses with pandemic potential

October 7, 2021 by PATH

SEATTLE, WA – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has just launched an ambitious new project that will work with partner countries and the global community to build better preparedness for future global health threats. Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses (DEEP VZN), a five-year, approximately $125 million project, will strengthen global capacity to detect and understand the risks of viral spillover from wildlife to humans that could cause another pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how infectious diseases threaten all of society. It is also a strong reminder of the connection between animals, humans, and the environment, and the effect that an emerging pathogen spilling over into humans can have on people’s health and on global economies. With more than 70 percent of viral outbreaks in people originating from animals, identifying and understanding unknown viral threats will help countries—and the world—be better prepared to detect, prevent, and respond to future biological threats.

DEEP VZN builds on previous work by significantly scaling up USAID’s efforts to understand where and how viruses spillover from animals to humans. The Washington State University Paul Allen School for Global Health will implement the project with a consortium of partners that includes PATH, the University of Washington, FHI 360, and Washington University in St. Louis. DEEP VZN will partner with researchers and institutions in up to 12 targeted countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have both a high risk for viral spillover and the capacity to safely conduct viral discovery.

The project will focus on finding previously unknown pathogens from three viral families that have a large potential for viral spillover from animals to humans: coronaviruses, the family that includes SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19; filoviruses, such as the Ebola virus; and paramyxoviruses which includes the viruses that cause measles and Nipah.

The goals are ambitious: to collect over 800,000 samples in the five years of the project, most of which will come from wildlife; then to detect whether viruses from the target families are present in the samples. When those are found, the researchers will determine the zoonotic potential of the viruses, or the ability to transfer from animals to humans. This process is expected to yield 8,000 to 12,000 novel viruses, which researchers will screen and then they will sequence the genomes of the ones that pose the most risk to animal and human health.

The project will also create data management systems that maximize the analysis and use of real-time data at country, regional, and global levels to enhance public health response and preparedness. The information that DEEP VZN gathers will play a critical role in bolstering timely response to emerging health threats in countries, and will aid the development of diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines for new viruses—along with the advancement of medical countermeasures for public health emergencies. Developing these tools now is essential for being better prepared for the future.

According to Dr. Linda Venczel, DEEP VZN’s technical lead at PATH, "This cutting edge collaboration is extremely important to strengthen the infrastructure and expertise needed for detection and characterization of emerging zoonotic pathogens from the country to the global level. Working alongside our local and international partners, we will increase the capacity of laboratory, surveillance, and data systems to use new approaches and technologies—including whole genome sequencing—to rapidly generate critical new information and insights to improve our preparedness and response to future epidemics and pandemics."

About PATH

PATH is a global nonprofit dedicated to achieving health equity. With more than 40 years of experience forging multisector partnerships, and with expertise in science, economics, technology, advocacy, and dozens of other specialties, PATH develops and scales up innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing health challenges.