LAWRENCE – As humanity tries to find its footing in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Kansas is taking steps to help prepare the United States and the rest of the world for future global health crises.
A. Townsend Peterson, Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and curator of ornithology at the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, is part of a team of researchers that secured funding from the National Science Foundation to establish the International Center for Avian Prediction and pandemic influenza prevention, dubbed “ICAIP3”.
The mission of the new multi-institutional center is to address the great challenges of global health with a particular focus on the prediction and prevention of the avian flu pandemic. Most famously, the 1918 flu pandemic showed that influenza viruses that start in birds can kill millions of humans. But in recent years bird flu, or “bird flu,” has caused outbreaks around the world that have killed billions of poultry and wild birds, as well as hundreds of people.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call to the world, underscoring the importance of investing in public health and the basic science of public health,” Peterson said. “It has had a scale of economic and public health impact that is unmatched in our lifetime. This center would have ongoing viral monitoring around the world, but particularly in regions that tend to give rise to pandemic flu strains. predictive understanding of what types of new avian influenza strains have pandemic potential.Can you imagine the value of monitoring wild bird populations and seeing all the permanent variations in influenza viruses, and being able to say, “Hey, this virus, this it’s what we need to look at.'”
The ICAIP3 center will be supported by the Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Preparedness (PIPP) initiative, part of NSF’s efforts to understand the science behind pandemics and build capacity to prevent and respond to future outbreaks.
“We have to think big when it comes to pandemics,” Peterson said. “COVID-19 is just one example of many different pandemics that have occurred throughout history. The Spanish flu, plague pandemics, typhoid fever, and avian flu are all examples of diseases that have significantly impacted on human health and the economy. We need to be proactive in our approach to understanding and preventing these types of outbreaks, rather than waiting for them to happen and rushing to respond.”
The total prize for the PIPP project is approximately $1 million. In addition to KU, the ICAIP3 project has partners at the University of Oklahoma, where the work is based, as well as the US Geological Survey, the University of California-Berkeley and the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for studies on the ecology of influenza in Animals and Birds with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Peterson said the collaborators aim to apply for additional funding once ICAIP3 is successful as a proof of concept during its initial 18-month phase, structured to align with PIPP’s goal of exploring ideas for a subsequent competition for funding at central level.
The team will work to establish continuous viral monitoring around the world, focusing more on regions that historically give rise to pandemic influenza strains. The goal is to understand the types of new strains that hold pandemic potential and help predict and prevent outbreaks in coming decades.
Peterson and his collaborators will test available computer models that track “spillover,” where a disease can spread between animal species (“stock poultry spillover” occurs when wild birds give a disease to chickens, for example). . Next, the team will work to improve these modeling approaches and run spillover simulations.
“If we get it right, what will come out is a model of the individual-scale, operational, and geographic behavior of a potential pandemic virus,” Peterson said. “Part of that potential is: does it just stay in one place? Or does it spread? If it spreads, does it take years or does it spread in days?
In essence, the KU researcher likened the work to devising an early warning system that would benefit researchers and public health officials as they decide where to allocate resources for maximum effect.
With avian flu, some of this work needs to incorporate data on bird migration patterns.
“You get an early warning of an ongoing outbreak and you say, ‘Okay, we’re pretty sure it’s a hypothetical specific virus — now, what are its most likely behavior patterns?’” Peterson said. “How quickly will it go from wild birds to domesticated birds? If it’s from Asia, where would we expect it to appear in the US? If this thing spread in the summer and you made it to Siberia, then the jump could be much further down the United States because some of those birds think eastern Siberia is western Alaska and they migrate south into the Americas in the fall. We would have a much better model than what we have now.”
Along with integrating huge amounts of disparate data into improved computer models, the collaboration will aim to build a community of researchers around a ‘One-Health (Human-Animal-Environment Systems) approach’ which they say is necessary to address “the complexity, dynamics and tele-coupling of HAES across multiple spatial and temporal scales and levels of organization. Peterson said he hopes the work will also strengthen the nation’s ability to monitor disease in birds and other species, as well as to safeguard public health and prevent social distress.
“What in our lifetime has had the scale of economic and public health impact with respect to COVID-19?” said Peterson. “Maybe 9/11, if I could count the war effort after that. We are too young to have lived through world wars, which were probably of the same magnitude here in America. But what, since – can you think of anything? If you want a stronger America, you create an America that has a strong public health system capable of responding to societal-driven health threats like vaccine hesitancy. Measles was gone, polio was gone, but now they’re popping up in less vaccinated communities. And we’re going to see more mosquito-borne diseases — like West Nile virus, Zika, chikungunya and dengue — that have recently emerged in the United States and each in a very different way.”
Photo above: The Magnificent Frigatebird, a seabird that ranges widely in oceanic environments. Credit: A. Townsend Peterson.