An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 viral species could jump from animals to humans. Scientists are joining the Global Virome Project initiative in hope of identifying new potential pathogens and countering them before they become the next pandemic. This move from a reactive to a proactive approach aims to provide a safer future for all.

An international team of scientists and physicians set in motion a new global initiative to prevent the next viral pandemic. The Global Virome Project  (GVP) is a ten-year project to hunt down potentially deadly viruses in animal populations before they jump species and infect humans. Last month they published an interesting report in the journal Science.

Estimated numbers are huge – 1.6 million viral species are likely yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations. Of those, 600,000 to 800,000 species may have the capacity for cross-species transmission and infecting humans.

Researchers are studying the disease vectors of previous outbreaks like Ebola, SARS, and Zika. The goal is to eventually track down all potentially dangerous viruses before they emerge in human populations and stop outbreaks before they even start. In the case of viruses, the best defense could be a good offense.

“I think what’s important and exciting is that we now have the tools and the ability to know as much about viruses as we do about bacteria and other disease-causing organisms,” Jonna Mazet told Seeker. “They were just a little bit tougher problem to crack than other pathogens that cause death and destruction.”

Mazet is the author of the report and the director of One Health Institute at the University of California. As director, she led the PREDICT program for eight years, a smaller-scale initiative operated by the United States Agency for International Development that has found more than 1,000 unique viruses in animals and humans.

“PREDICT showed us that we are ready to do this on a much larger scale. It served as a proof of concept.” Mazet added.

Altogether, scientists must extend their approach to disease prevention.

“The idea is to think about people, animals, and the environment all at once,” she said. “That approach helps us to find viruses in the first place and understand their potential for spilling over. Then we can design interventions.”

Identifying and cataloging unknown viruses comes first. Then, hopefully, that data can be used to develop new vaccines and pharmaceuticals. The GVP will work closely with big organizations like UN, WHO, local governments, and also with industry partners and citizens.

“And then, of course, individual scientists are pitching in from all over the world – Asia, Africa, the US, Canada, and Europe,” Mazet said.

After Latin America had a very bad experience with Zika epidemic, it has contributed a fair amount of resources following the 2015-2016 epidemic.

“Brazil has been a major player in all this effort,” Mazet said. “They’ve been very sensitized after their experiences with Zika.”

Advocates of the GVP initiative promote fundamental changes in the way the global health community responds to viral outbreaks. Up to now, the priority was reducing the impact of diseases after they have emerged.

“Success in preventing pandemics and the uncontrolled spread of epidemics requires thinking and acting differently. Rapid and revolutionary advances in health science and technology allow us to imagine a world without the threat of novel pandemics. We must move forward to be proactive and prepare before a pandemic occurs,” the authors write on the GVP project page.

More and more scientists and healthcare representatives are aware that we should move the line of engagement with viral outbreaks.

“We have to stop chasing the last virus that just attacked our community, and instead get prepared in advance,” said Mazet.

Learn more about field work of GVP scientists in the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc