Laying the Groundwork for Pandemic Prevention

A global consortium is strengthening our capacity to reduce the risks of emerging pathogens

At least 75% of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases of humans—including Ebola, Nipah virus, and zoonotic avian flu—have an animal origin. Chances are that when the next illness like COVID-19 emerges to threaten global health, it will originate in animals before it passes to humans, a process known as spillover. Is there a way to keep that tipping point from happening, or at least mitigate the dangerous effects? Experts say yes.

Strategies to Prevent Spillover, or STOP Spillover, a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and led by Tufts University, is working with stakeholders in key countries in Africa and Asia to find ways to decrease the risks of harmful viral pathogens that jump from animals to humans.

Begun in late 2020, STOP Spillover has so far partnered with colleagues in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Uganda, Vietnam, and Sierra Leone to strengthen country capacities to reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases, or those that move between animals and humans. Teams of experts collaborate to develop country- and locality-specific research studies and interventions to reduce risks associated with selected viral zoonotic pathogens and to prevent their spread.

USAID administers the U.S. foreign assistance program providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries worldwide. For this project, Tufts leads a global consortium of partners with cross-disciplinary experience and regional knowledge.

From the outset, this consortium of experts in human, animal, and environmental health has been heavily focused on engagement, working with stakeholders at the national, regional and local levels to confirm concerns related to selected zoonotic viral pathogens.

On the ground at the local level—in places such as wildlife farms in Dong Nai province, Vietnam, and wild animal meat markets in Kenema, Sierra Leone—community-led workshops have provided important data about the interactions humans have with wild and domestic animals in their work and home lives, as well as the barriers they see to behavior changes that reduce spillover risk.

The program has formed local expert working groups to identify places where spillover is most likely to occur and to design risk-reduction interventions. In the Bundibugyo District of Uganda, for example, STOP Spillover is focusing on interactions between humans and bats, which have been implicated in past Ebola outbreaks. The district has faced increasing bat-human interactions, partly driven by deforestation, and bats are often found close by in homes, farms, churches, and schools.

In Bundibugyo, STOP Spillover is implementing interventions that, among other things, promote ways to keep bats out of households, share safe practices around bats and their guano, train communities to protect water and food from contamination, and establish a community-based bat monitoring program. Two related research studies are also in the works.

The program has exemplified the One Health concept: that human, animal, and environmental health are interconnected. When STOP Spillover began more than two years ago, Deborah Kochevar, the program’s director, explained, “We need to appreciate that our human health depends upon the health of other creatures and the integrity of our shared ecosystems.”

Kochevar, dean emerita of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and senior fellow at The Fletcher School, both at Tufts University, is stepping down as project director on March 14.

Three other members of STOP Spillover will serve as the interim leadership team until a new director is named: Hellen Amuguni, an associate professor in the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health at Cummings School; Felicia Nutter, director of the International Veterinary Medicine Program at Cummings School with a secondary appointment at the School of Medicine; and Jonathon Gass, an assistant professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Tufts University School of Medicine with a secondary appointment at Cummings School.

Meanwhile, the design and implementation of interventions continues. At live bird markets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the threat of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is a concern, efforts are underway to develop a coordinated and sustainable platform for pathogen surveillance and data sharing. At wildlife farms in Vietnam, researchers are studying what biosafety improvements farmers and others in the supply chain can incorporate for long-term reduction of spillover risks.

In January, team members traveled to Man, Côte d’Ivoire, to develop a sample collection protocol for surveillance of wastewater and surface water, where samples can be tested for Ebola, Marburg, and other zoonotic viruses. The aim is to develop wastewater monitoring protocols in other STOP Spillover countries, including Liberia and Uganda.

The over-arching goal of STOP Spillover remains the same: building critical partnerships and laying the groundwork for risk-reducing change that could prevent the next pandemic.

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