By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
In the Amazon rainforest of southeastern Peru, Gideon Erkenswick, PhD, and his team collect biological samples from wildlife populations of bats and primates.
“We regularly collect samples,” explained Erkenswick. “Blood tissue, fecal swabs, nasal swabs and then release animals.”
Erkenswick is part of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He’s also the co-founder and director of Field Projects International, a research and conservation nonprofit organization, which is using portable sequencing technology to screen for disease-causing viruses that are associated with the movement of wildlife or wildlife products.
“COVID-19 is caused by a beta coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Close to the area (in Wuhan, China), where we suspect the outbreak took place, there’s a wildlife market.”
Erkenswick is a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of Jennifer A. Philips, MD, PhD. Philips is co-director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses circulate in bats,” said Philips. “And how it actually spilled into people is still an area of active investigation.”
Philips and Erkenswick are co-authors of a study proving the value of broadly deploying new methods of wildlife screening to include next-generation sequencing technology. In the wild, the team can extract viral genomes from animal samples and rapidly sequence them onsite.
The researchers are hoping to create a global wildlife surveillance system to identify animal viruses that can potentially cause human diseases. They say this new system could provide early warning for the next pandemic.
“To harness the capacity around the world that’s not being harnessed with new technologies so that we can protect the whole world,” said Philips.
In a perspective article published July 9 in Science, this diverse group of infectious disease experts, ecologists, wildlife biologists and other experts argue that a decentralized global system of wildlife surveillance could – and must – be established to identify viruses in wild animals that have the potential to infect and sicken people before another pandemic begins.
“There isn’t consistent pathogen surveillance taking place in wildlife markets or in wildlife communities or in peridomestic animals,” said Erkenswick.
The goal is to expand wildlife surveillance globally. This includes monitoring hotspots and wildlife markets and providing data collection and analysis with higher accuracy and greater speed. The researchers say they want to go beyond a process that’s been unreliable with fewer available labs and resources.
“This kind of system could produce data in a matter of days or weeks. Whereas prior systems that involve moving samples around; exporting samples; storing samples; finding the right labs to test the samples; that’s years, months at best, or sometimes years to achieve that work,” Erkenswick said.
Viral sequences can now be uploaded from onsite to a central database in the cloud.
“It’s cutting-edge technology that’s more affordable and portable that you can teach people onsite to be able to use,” said Philips.
“Collect samples on the fly and test for parasites or pathogens,” said Erkenswick.
Researchers around the world could help analyze the viral sequences to identify animal viruses that may be a threat to people. Identification of pathogens would be more immediate.
“We have to understand the human-wildlife interface better, so we have to make a science out of it that we don’t have right now, a science of trying to predict and understand markers of where that risk really is,” said Philips.
Philips said the proposed new system could provide early warning for the next outbreak or pandemic so that the world may be prepared.
“Should they spill, we could rapidly develop therapeutics that would encompass these other things that are in nature,” said Philips.