Throughout history, major disease outbreaks have started after a virus jumped from animals to humans. The 1918 Spanish flu started in birds. The bubonic plague originated in rats. Bats, for reasons still being explored, account for the majority of these zoonotic diseases—those germs and viruses that can pass from animals to humans, or vice versa. They’ve been linked to Ebola, SARS, and now COVID-19.
The risk of future pandemics arising from zoonotic diseases might be greater than ever, with studies suggesting a steady rise in diseases spreading from animals to humans since the 1940s. Climate change, ballooning populations, and environmental destruction all likely contribute to the chance that disease transmits from any number of species to people. But despite the growing threat, potential cases and sick animals are reported haphazardly, if at all.
To combat the risks, researchers are turning to technology to better track and predict potential zoonotic threats. VetNow, a company that enables veterinarians to assess and diagnose animals remotely, is expanding its platform to fill the gaps in animal healthcare. Working with researchers at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, VetNow is building on years of zoonotic disease data that Smithsonian scientists and others have collected. The goal is to put VetNow’s software platform and diagnosis tools in the field where they’re needed most.
“Veterinarians see a lot more in terms of strange infectious diseases in animals that don’t have vaccines and that we don’t know how they got there,” says Dr. Apryle Horbal, the president of VetNow. “And so we know that this pandemic, unfortunately, was almost an inevitability.”
To test for animal diseases in the field, VetNow created a custom toolkit comprised of a Bluetooth-enabled stethoscope, digital microscope, electrocardiogram to measure heart activity, and pulse oximeter—a tool that measures the oxygen level in blood. VetNow and Smithsonian scientists will train local veterinarians and community members to use the tools and connect to VetNow’s software platform, where a network of veterinarians, epidemiologists, and public health experts will consult on possible threats.
For example, if a cow is sick, its owner would ask a local veterinarian to examine it. If the illness wasn’t apparent to the veterinarian, they would use VetNow’s kit to take the cow’s vitals and gather other useful information like photographs of its eyes and ears. Samples of blood could be analyzed remotely, and the data uploaded to VetNow’s platform. Then, a Smithsonian scientist would be able to view and analyze the information in real-time before hopefully offering a treatment plan. The data from the case ends up in the VetNow database, which researchers and algorithms can monitor for patterns in symptoms and diagnoses. Trends in a certain area could indicate a larger outbreak.
“There’s a lot of gaps in knowledge,” says Dawn Zimmerman, the Director of Wildlife Health for Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, who’s working with VetNow to build the toolkit. “Not everyone is using the same platform to report.”
When it comes to large or dangerous wildlife like gorillas, a sick or injured animal would have to be tranquilized to be examined. But Horbal says many local veterinarians are familiar with how to work safely with wildlife and just need training on how to use the kit to collect and analyze samples.
Creating a virus hunting database
VetNow and Smithsonian hope to build off what Smithsonian and other groups have learned about zoonotic diseases through the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) PREDICT program, which began in 2009 with a $200 million budget to “strengthen global capacity for detection and discovery of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential.”
The program identified almost 1,000 novel viruses, including 160 potentially dangerous coronaviruses, and created a risk map of where zoonotic dangers lie. The risk maps led researchers to improve local laboratories in at-risk areas and encourage preventative measures like patching roofs, which prevents bats from roosting in homes.
PREDICT, which shut down in December before being quickly revived and extended last month as this pandemic took hold, will be replaced by another USAID program called STOP Spillover. This program, which launched earlier this month, will focus on monitoring areas at high-risk for animal-human contact, like wet markets or towns close to areas with previous outbreaks.
VetNow plans to apply for funding from STOP Spillover to take the data from PREDICT and develop a global database of zoonotic disease cases aimed at detecting pathogens early on. The company is also experimenting with machine learning algorithms that are able to analyze incoming field data and then automatically update the risk maps and find new threats before they become apparent to human epidemiologists.
Apryle Horbal, VetNow
We know that this pandemic, unfortunately, was almost an inevitability.”
Beyond detecting the new coronaviruses, PREDICT funded outreach like a book called Living Safely with Bats, which was distributed in multiple languages to communities where the risk maps suggested the information could be most useful. But while researchers were able to stop at least one deadly outbreak from repeating itself in Bangladesh by figuring out how disease was being passed from bats to humans, PREDICT didn’t catch COVID-19. Nor has it found any other zoonotic disease about to hop over before the transmission occurred.
Other researchers argue that we don’t understand enough about zoonotic diseases to be able to make predictions about which will be a threat to humans, with one virologist telling Smithsonian Magazine that PREDICT was “more PR than science.”
Technology also only helps with part of the problem. Policy and education play a large role in preventing the spread of disease, whether it’s from animal to human or human to human. As we’ve seen in the U.S., convincing people to adhere to stay at home orders isn’t always successful.
Other regions have different issues to overcome. In Kenya, some people eat bushmeat when other food sources are scarce. So even when authorities send out animal disease warnings, people might continue to hunt if they have no alternative. In some communities, camels are considered prized meat. They’re eaten even if it looks like the animal died from an illness.
Involving locals in the data collection can help ensure that efforts are sensitive to cultural traditions, but governments also need to implement social assistance so communities are taken care of during a crisis. This might mean providing food during droughts so risky animals are left alone, or bringing in additional medical care.
Still, it’s early days for these improved reporting measures. Ultimately, more data about where possible threats lie could help communities to be ready to react. Unless we cut ourselves off entirely from nature, zoonotic diseases are inevitable.
“Spillover is going to happen,” Zimmerman says. “If [technology] helps you realize what’s happening and then report it as quickly as possible, then you can respond as quickly as possible.”