Illegal occupation of Amazon rainforest land with livestock. The top predictor of “spillover events,” in which diseases jump from animals to humans, is significant changes in land use, namely demolishing wild habitat and converting it to agricultural use, especially for raising livestock. (Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
I’m writing this article in mid-April, and no matter how the world is faring when you read it, here is how Suzan Murray will make you feel worse—but then better. The worse part: she knows other viral outbreaks will happen, and happen more frequently, primarily because animal habitat loss is driving wildlife and people into closer proximity. Better: she is one of the key players working to prevent these outbreaks from becoming calamities.
You don’t need any more suspense in these grievous times, so I’ll move up my punch line: It is the veterinarians who will save us.
In 2009, in the wake of the SARS outbreak, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its Emerging Pandemic Threats program. It was split into four branches: PREDICT, PREVENT, IDENTIFY and RESPOND. The all-caps are the title style, but you could say they also connote the urgency of the enterprise.
PREDICT’s goal is to act like a sort of early warning system for pandemics. To that end, scientists try to find, research and monitor zoonotic diseases—those that spill over from various animal species to humans. The usual viral envoys include bats, camels, chickens, civets, ducks, deer, ferrets, horses, monkeys, pangolins, pigs and rats. (Keep in mind that transmission goes both ways—reverse zoonosis is when human beings infect animals.)
It’s typical for a few species to be involved in an instance of zoonotic spread, one acting as a go-
between before humans are directly affected. The virus-
carrying bat takes a bite of a piece of fruit, say; then the camel eats the rest of that fruit, and later gets ornery
and spits at its human rider, dispersing the virus. The pathogen transmission chain for SARS is thought to have been bats-civets-humans, while with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) it was bats-camels-humans. For COVID-19, bats are the prime suspect, with an as-yet-unknown intermediary relaying the virus to humans. As Kate Winslet’s character declared in the movie Contagion: “Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”
PREDICT is staffed by wildlife veterinarians and disease trackers from various institutions. These include EcoHealth Alliance; Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity; the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo; and the Smithsonian, which runs the National Zoo. Murray directs the Smithsonian part of the whole, with a special focus on examining potential viral hot spots in Kenya and Myanmar. The other groups work everywhere from Bangladesh to Cote d’Ivoire to Mexico, 30-plus countries altogether.
The lead partner in PREDICT is the One Health Institute in the veterinary school at the University of California, Davis. That’s a phrase I heard a lot, getting to know Murray: “One Health,” sometimes
expanded to “One Health, One World.” (To learn about another alum involved in One Health, Peter Rabinowitz ’78, see page 11.) It posits that public health, wildlife health and livestock veterinary experts should come out of their silos to share information to prevent future pandemics. In 2006, the American Veterinary Medical Association launched a One Health Initiative Task Force. Since then, many
organizations, from the United Nations to the American
Medical Association to the World Bank have incorporated these precepts into their outreach as well. (A book on the concept has a great title: Zoobiquity.)
At Amherst’s reunion weekend in 2019, Murray spoke to her fellow alumni about One Health: “We need to have M.D.s and D.V.M.s [doctors of veterinary medicine] working side by side. We need to make sure we’re highlighting the work of both. We’re working to save people and animals—because it’s very often the same needle, syringe, laboratory and personnel, whether you’re anesthetizing animals to collect samples for the purpose of saving people or for the purpose of saving animals.”
So far, PREDICT has identified more than 1,200 novel viruses localized in wildlife. Of these, 161
emanate from the same family as the COVID-19 virus. Most of these viruses are weaker than the one
that has shut down our world, but not enough is yet known about their possible impact. In the past decade, PREDICT has systematically elevated its virus detection and analysis capability by setting up and staffing 60 labs in the likeliest hot spots for spillover around the globe.
Murray told me: “If we had all the money in the world and could look at all the species, that would be great, but we really want to use our resources to figure out what countries contain hot zones and where diseases are likely to emerge. We work with USAID to develop the countries where surveillance is needed, in particular wildlife health surveillance. Then we hire in-country coordinators, because we need to get away from the model of American expats showing up.”
USAID and the Smithsonian both have good reputations around the world, which helps facilitate the mission, and the veterinarians are something like first responders. They are taking blood, fecal and saliva samples from wildlife and livestock, then analyzing them in the lab for the presence of viruses. Meanwhile, physicians can test people for evidence of contagion.
I spoke to Dennis Carroll, the former head of
PREDICT, to help me contextualize Murray’s role. “Suzan is one of the field people going out and overseeing operations, really doing that pioneering work around viral discovery and connecting the different members of this scientific community,” he said. “She is one of the real voices that has validated the power and doability of viral discovery. And she’s fabulous at her work.”
The role that veterinarians play in global health has historically been under-recognized.
In the current Amherst course catalog, there are a number of cross-disciplinary offerings: “Madame Butterfly Lives: Cross-Cultural Exchanges in France and Japan,” pollinates the scholarship of one French professor and one from Asian languages and civilizations. “Being Human in STEM” is co-taught by a chemist and a sociologist. There are multiple lines of inquiry—and multiple global problems—that can be mastered only through multiple frames of reference.
I’ve spoken mostly about veterinarians teaming up with physicians in PREDICT. But they have also been joined by specialists in public health, conservation biology, epidemiology, virology and molecular biology. PREDICT has now trained some 6,600 people around the world to be virus hunters, from the vantage of their discipline. USAID calls this network “the first line of defense.”
All are scrutinizing and acting on issues that commence at the human/animal interface. And those interfaces are expanding at an alarming rate, up to two and three times higher than 40 years ago. Spillover is especially catalyzed by spikes in human population and humankind’s subsequent inroads into wildlife areas. This is where the conservationists come in, pinpointing and advocating to conserve habitats for a host of purposes, from carbon capture to water filtration to acting as a natural boundary between
animal and human populations, which in turn lowers the chance of epidemics.
Indeed, the top predictor of spillover events is significant change in land use, namely demolishing wild habitat and converting it to agricultural use, especially for raising livestock. Then there are other culprits, such as wildlife trafficking, open-air meat markets and places of animal slaughter, from back yards to packing plants. This is where public health experts come in: if scientists can identify the loci where viruses are most likely to cross from animals to humans, then they can warn people, find ways to change any behaviors that increase risks, and contain any nascent infection.
PREDICT is doing “daring fieldwork,” writes Donald G. McNeil Jr., who reports on pandemics for The New York Times. The Washington Post covered the Smithsonian’s virus detection work in early February. “I think we’re vastly more prepared than we were 10 years ago,” Murray told the Post reporter. “The people behind the curtain know more than they used to.” Added her colleague, wildlife veterinarian Marc
Valitutto: “The work that we’re doing is a lifelong thing. It’s a forever thing.”
If only that were the case. It turns out that PREDICT had a 10-year funding timeline, which meant it technically halted in fall 2019. Fieldwork stopped that September, and the Trump administration officially ended the program in March 2020, as the COVID-19 crisis escalated. Over the course of its decade in existence, PREDICT spent $206 million. That’s an absurdly low amount. Since I’ve now got bats on my mind, I’ll deploy this financial comparison: The Batman franchise movie The Dark Knight Rises had a $230 million budget. Over the next decade, economists estimate, COVID-19 will cost the U.S. economy $8 trillion.
A small, bright light has appeared, though. In early April, USAID fronted $2.6 million for a six-month emergency extension of PREDICT. Its in-country labs were repurposed to help with the current pandemic. Murray hopes PREDICT will get a longer lease on life from the federal government, but she’s not confident.
“I think it would be great if they would continue, and we are knocking on pretty much every door that we can to get it funded,” she says, meaning mostly private philanthropy: these days, half her time goes toward fundraising. At least the initial PREDICT infrastructure is solidified, with so many in-country folks trained, says Murray, adding that the Smithsonian continues a variety of wildlife veterinary trainingprograms abroad and at home. Her highest wish is that a new federal agency is created to enhance and propel what PREDICT started.
Scaling up is the only way to go, when you look at the numbers. PREDICT has found a few thousand viruses, but estimates hold that there are some 1.6 million viruses still to be discovered in mammal and avian hosts. I went back to PREDICT’s Dennis Carroll, who now leads the Global Virome Project, a nonprofit that is tracking and developing a database of viruses, in essence continuing the work of PREDICT in the vacuum of federal support.
“If viral discovery was going to have a transformative impact on preparedness and response, finding 2,000 viruses every 10 years wasn’t exactly going to do it, right?” he began. “We need to scale this so that in a 10-year period you could discover 75 percent of that big data. Suzan, with the skills that she brings, is critical toward furthering this human health agenda. Every viral threat we’re going to deal with in this century is already in existence. This isn’t like spontaneous combustion. Viruses exist, and it’s a matter of getting out and identifying them—and knowing your enemy.”
It’s much more effective and humane to prevent disease than to try to diagnose, treat and contain it afterward.
In Myanmar, beside a narrow dirt path, above a serene river and rimmed by lush greenery, looms the vast Linno Cave. Linno comes from the Burmese for “bat.” At dusk, tourists arrive to watch millions of bats emerge for their crucial night-work, eating the pests that harm the local crops. Villagers beat empty fuel drums with sticks for the pleasure of the crowd: the sound makes the echolocating bats swerve in majestic unison.
At the mouth of the cave, there are gilded statues of the Buddha, and indeed, the Linno Cave is a pilgrimage site in the Buddhist tradition, as the Lourdes grotto is in Christianity or the cave of Hira in Islam. Tradition has it that pilgrims remove their shoes at the site. Some villagers make their living collecting guano inside, selling it as fertilizer. In Myanmar, and many countries, bats are a protein source and are hunted or sold in wild animal meat markets. Coconut bat soup is a delicacy in Guam, for instance.
Since 1960, Myanmar’s population has risen from 32 to 53 million people. Political unrest and outside sanctions have impeded the development of a health infrastructure, and now, ever more wild land gets cut down to build housing and make way for additional cropland to feed the population. On Murray’s watch, the PREDICT team here has taken thousands of
wildlife and human samples for analysis, identifying six novel coronaviruses so far (none deemed harmful to humans).
Meanwhile, biologists have put collars on the Linno bats to track their flight patterns and distances. And public health experts have reached out to the local community to hear their questions and evaluate which human behaviors are riskiest for zoonotic transmission. In turn, the people who live near the Linno Cave have asked hard questions about PREDICT’s motives. Would they respect Burmese culture and religion? If disease is found, would this decimate the country’s tourism and agriculture industry? Signs have now been posted that promote living safely alongside bats. They are translated into 13 different local languages.
I asked Murray what these efforts can teach us as we navigate the greatest pandemic in a century.
“If we want to wait until something starts killing a lot of people and then try to figure out what’s doing the killing, and we don’t have the laboratory capacity to identify the virus and try to figure out what species is carrying the virus or what’s the reservoir, and then we backtrack to what people do to get in harm’s way, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of lives. And now trillions of dollars. It’s much more effective and humane to prevent disease than to try to diagnose, treat and contain it afterward.”
She continued: “There are a number of reasons why we need to be including veterinary health in the whole global health context. I think veterinarians have known that for a long time. But it takes a while to tell the story until everyone can catch on.”
Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.