Can An App Predict The Next Pandemic?

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

There are about 1.7 million viruses that afflict mammals and birds, and about half of them could potentially infect humans, just like COVID-19, SARS, HIV, and Ebola. But a team of researchers at UC Davis are attempting to help prevent another pandemic from disrupting the world, by creating an app called SpillOver. This tool gives every virus a score (like a credit score) based on how likely it is to jump from other species to humans, a process called “viral spillover.” This score depends on the virus species, host species, and country of origin to determine how deadly it may be.  

Why this Matters:  The scientists creating the app believe that by creating a prioritized watchlist of viruses, we can better have improved detection and thus reduce the risk of disease transmission and maybe even preemptively develop vaccines, therapeutics, and public education campaigns for the viruses that pose the greatest risk.  We can also better target other prevention measures like controls on wildlife markets and habitat protection in key risk areas. The rate of viral spillover is continuing to increase, making it much more likely for a new virus to infect humans across the world. 

An Ounce of Prevention

Raina Plowright, a wildlife ecologist at Montana State University, told National Geographic: “We’re intruding into the last wild spaces and coming into more contact with wildlife and taking away key resources that animals need to survive.” Stressed animals forced out of their habitats are more likely to get sick and go into human spaces to look for food and shelter, making them more likely to transmit disease.

Knowing how diseases transmit will also help find potential treatments before these viral infections become a pandemic. For example, epidemiologist Emily Gurley traced suspicious outbreaks of the Nipah virus in Bangladesh to fruit bats who had contaminated date palm sap with the virus. With this knowledge, Gurley was able to start a “drink safer sap” public education campaign. 

Predict and Protect

This project started with a $238 million campaign called PREDICT, a program run by the United States Agency for International Development, which had 6,800 virus hunters in 35 countries collect blood, saliva, urine, or feces from various mammals to analyze the samples’ genetic sequences. They discovered nearly 900 new viruses, including 160 coronaviruses and a previously unknown strain of Ebola, alongside 18 previously known zoonotic viruses, such as Lassa and Marburg, which cause hemorrhagic fevers.

SpillOver was a way of taking all of this data and organizing it, locating which viruses are particularly high-risk. Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist at UC Davis and a principal investigator at PREDICT told National Geographic: “We created this tool because we didn’t just want to scare the world that there are a bunch of new viruses and no one knows what to do with them. The tool is to create watchlists for surveillance with all the data about how people are exposed.”

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