We live in an era when the threats posed by global pandemics are greater than at any other point in human history. We live in fear of a previously-unknown pathogen suddenly emerging and sweeping through every household, through every community, irrespective of borders, or of its hosts’ social and economic standing. This fear alone can cost billions, as we saw in the global panic that followed the SARS and H1N1 influenza virus outbreaks. It is not unfounded, as evidenced by the 35-year HIV/AIDS epidemic that has cost over 35 million lives.
Despite the potential impact of viral threats, the world remains unable to predict when, where, or from what species the next emerging virus will break out. Global trends indicate that over the course of this century, new microbial threats will continue to emerge at an accelerating rate, driven by the world’s expanding population, growing interconnectedness, and increasing interactions with animal populations (1). The majority of these threats originate in a seemingly endless pool of viruses carried by our relatives in the Animal Kingdom (2). Modern science has been able to characterize some of these viruses and trace their roots to their mammalian origins – for example, HIV-1 that spilled over from chimpanzees to people and Ebolavirus carried by bats in Africa (3). However, recent estimates put the total number of these animal viruses that could threaten us at more than 1.5 million, spanning 24 viral families (4). Compared to the 260+ viruses currently known from humans (5), this viral “dark matter” represents 99.9% of the potential pandemic threat. It means that, for every known strain of the SARS virus there are likely thousands of unknown “SARS-like” viruses (6) circulating in wildlife that could emerge in the future.
The Global Virome Project (GVP) was conceived in response to the challenge posed by the repeated and unpredictable emergence of high impact viral epidemics. These outbreaks compromise global health security and the well-being of the people of the world (1). The recently launched Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) represents a critical step to address known but long-neglected viral threats, such as MERS-CoV, Lassa Fever, and Nipah Virus (7). This vital work addresses long-known but underfunded viral threats; however, a tremendous challenge remains: how do we best prepare for unknown future threats?
The GVP’s goal is to characterizing the vast pool of unknown viral threats in wildlife, their natural hosts. Knowing what viruses are available and able to infect humans and their epidemiological circumstances will allow us to prepare for viruses before they jump into people. It will transform our culture from one that responds to outbreaks to one that predicts and prevents future pandemics. It will also better prepare us to prevent accidental or intentional release of laboratory-enhanced virus variants. With broad support for the GVP, the world will be better prepared to deal with the consequences of escalating spillover of deadly viruses, likely in just ten years. The initiative will generate an unprecedented atlas of viral diversity, build global surveillance and laboratory capacity in the most high-risk areas, catalyze technological advances in diagnostics and vaccines, and establish a global framework for triaging and neutralizing novel viral outbreaks before they spread between humans.
The project is now at a critical point of gaining increasing support from new partners and collaborators, starting pilot projects in several countries, and ready for its global launch. We believe that GVP’s concept and goal aligns perfectly with the subtheme for PMAC 2018 - Making the World Safe from the Threats of Emerging Infectious Diseases and would very much appreciate the opportunity to launch the initiative in the ideal setting. In short, the GVP is designed to herald in the beginning of the end of the Pandemic Era, and PMAC 2018 will be the optimal stage for launching this next ‘big science’ project.
1. Jones KE, Patel NG, Levy MA, Storeygard A, Balk D, Gittleman JL, et al. Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature. 2008;451:990-3.
2. Prediction and prevention of the next pandemic zoonosis, (2012).
3. Leroy EM, Kumulungui B, Pourrut X, Rouquet P, Hassanin A, Yaba P, et al. Fruit bats as reservoirs of Ebola virus. Nature. 2005;438:575-6.
4. Carroll DD, Peter; Wolfe, Nathan D.; Gao, George F.; Morel, Carlos; Morzaria, Subhash; Tomori, Oyewale; Mazet, Jonna A.K. The Global Virome Project. Science (in review). 2017.
5. Olival KJ, Hosseini PR, Zambrana-Torrelio C, Ross N, Bogich TL, Daszak P. Host and viral traits predict zoonotic spillover from mammals. Nature. 2017.
6. Ge XY, Li JL, Yang XL, Chmura AA, Zhu G, Epstein JH, et al. Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor. Nature. 2013;503(7477):535-8.
7. Brende B, Farrar J, Gashumba D, Moedas C, Mundel T, Shiozaki Y, et al. CEPI—a new global R&D organisation for epidemic preparedness and response. The Lancet. 2017;389:233-5.