US will revive global virus hunting effort ended last year

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – A worldwide virus-hunting programme allowed to expire last year by the Trump administration, just before the coronavirus pandemic broke out, will have a second life – whatever the outcome of the presidential election.

Mr Joe Biden has promised that, if elected, he will restore the programme, called Predict, which searched for dangerous new animal viruses in bat caves, camel pens, wet markets and wildlife-smuggling routes around the globe.

The expiration of Predict just weeks before the advent of the pandemic prompted wide criticism among scientists, who noted that the coronavirus is exactly the sort of catastrophic animal virus the programme was designed to head off.

In a speech Thursday (Aug 27), Ms Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, briefly alluded to the controversy as she attacked President Donald Trump before the last night of the Republican National Convention.

“Barack Obama and Joe Biden had a programme, called Predict, that tracked emerging diseases in places like China,” she said late in her 20-minute speech. “Trump cut it.”

The government agency that let Predict die last October has quietly created a US$100 million (S$135.87 million) programme with a similar purpose as Predict, but it has a different name. The new programme, set to begin in October, will be called Stop Spillover.

Predict, which was started in 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s Emerging Pandemic Threats programme, was inspired by the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare. Predict was run by the US Agency for International Development, which is an independent foreign-aid agency overseen by the State Department.

Predict was an odd fit for USAID, experts said. Unlike the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health, the agency is not normally a home to cutting-edge science.

The US response to pandemics is strangely fragmented. The CDC investigates outbreaks, while the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases pursues vaccines. Much research into tropical diseases and bioweapons is done by the military, legacies of the Spanish-American War and the Cold War, while the State Department coordinates global campaigns against AIDS.

Some experts have called for a more centralised arrangement, a sort of Pentagon for diseases.

In the public health arena, USAID is home to programmes like the President’s Malaria Initiative and campaigns to bring clean drinking water to rural villages. But those programmes rely on long-established interventions, like well-drilling, mosquito nets and anti-malaria drugs.

Interviews with former Predict officials and grantees indicate that the programme was not actively targeted by the White House in 2019, but that it was allowed to die by cautious administrators who were already under pressure to cut budgets and who feared running afoul of Mr Trump’s hostility to foreign aid.

Mr Dennis Carroll, Predict’s creator and director, retired from government service when the virus-hunting programme was shut down. In an interview Friday, he said Predict was closed by “risk-averse bureaucrats who were trying to divine what the Trump administration did and didn’t want.”

Mr Carroll, a fellow at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M in College Station, is now an informal adviser on global health issues to the Biden campaign.

On Friday, a USAID spokeswoman, Ms Pooja Jhunjhunwala, denied that Predict was cancelled and said it simply came to the end of its 10-year “life cycle.” The programme was then extended twice for six months, she said – first to finish some analyses, then to help other countries fight Covid-19.

In the early days of the pandemic, Predict became a target of some administration officials because of a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based consultancy employing field veterinarians and wildlife biologists. The alliance had used the grant money to train Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to catch bats, take fecal and blood samples, and analyse them for viruses.

By then, the Wuhan institute had become the target of rumours that said it had accidentally released the lethal new coronavirus into the world. Those rumours were repeated by national security officials without evidence, and were central to the administration’s efforts to divert blame to China, rather than to Mr Trump, for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from the virus.

The rumours arose in part because one of the institute’s thousands of stored bat samples contained a virus that was a 96 per cent match for Sars-CoV-2. But because coronaviruses mutate slowly, that figure does not describe a close relative. Most evolutionary biologists interpreted the finding to suggest that the two viruses evolved from a common ancestor 40 years ago.

During its 10-year existence, Predict spent US$207 million to train about 5,000 scientists in 30 African and Asian countries, and to build or strengthen 60 laboratories to seek out animal viruses that could endanger humans. Scientists working for Predict collected more than 140,000 biological samples and found more than 1,000 new viruses, including a new strain of Ebola.

Even after Predict ended, gene-sequencing teams that it trained in Thailand and Nepal were the first to detect Covid-19 in their countries, even before they got test kits from the World Health Organisation, said Dr Jonna Mazet, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, who was Predict’s global director.

Both countries rapidly contained the spread of the virus and have kept deaths from it very low, despite having cases early.

Now Predict’s five major grantees have formed a new consortium to apply for the US$100 million Stop Spillover grant from USAID. The group includes the One Health Institute at UC Davis; the EcoHealth Alliance; the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo; the Smithsonian Institution, which manages the National Zoo in Washington; and the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University in New York.

“I don’t know who our competitors are, but I’m sure we have some,” said Dr Christine Johnson, associate director of the One Health Institute.

The application process for the Stop Spillover grant was unusually brief, she said. USAID first discussed it with scientists in March as a possible US$50 million grant, then doubled the amount and announced May 1 that applications had to be received by June 1.

The request for applications asked for expertise in known threats like the Ebola, Nipah and Lassa viruses, she said, but it also hinted that the work could be broadened to include emerging threats. The agency sought expertise in coronaviruses, filoviruses and other viral “families” that produce novel pathogens.

Mr Carroll said Friday that he had designed Stop Spillover years ago and intended it as a “companion piece” to Predict that would focus on spotting outbreaks of known pathogens while Predict hunted for still-unknown ones.

Predict, he had hoped, would eventually be folded into the Global Virome Project, a multibillion-dollar effort to genetically sequence up to 800,000 potentially dangerous viruses discovered in dozens of animal species.

By making Stop Spillover sound like the revival of Predict,Mr Carroll said, USAID is “trying to create an optic that gets them out of the blowback for ending Predict.”

Although Ms Jhunjhunwala said Stop Spillover “is not a revival of Predict, nor a follow-on project,” she said it was designed to “implement the scientific gains of Predict to reduce the risk of viral spillover.”

In a statement to The New York Times, Mr Biden vowed to restore many of the programmes cut during the Trump administration, including Predict, that might have given the country more warning of an impending pandemic.

“As president, I will prioritise sustained long-term investments that ensure America is strong, resilient and ready in the face of new pandemic threats,” Mr Biden said.

Of the current crisis, he said: “It did not have to be this bad. That’s the greatest tragedy of all.”

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