Where the Wild Things Are: Zoonotic Research Requires a Focus on the Wild
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Han Wei and Brittany Niccum. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
Wild animals are everywhere; we just don’t always notice them. Walking in a city park, we’re in the habitat of rabbits, birds, chipmunks, and maybe even deer. In our backyard hammock, we enjoy the birdsong and chorus of crickets; but we’re invading the home of squirrels, raccoons, opossums and countless insects – mosquitos, ticks, fleas. All of these carry the risks of known and unknown diseases. When those diseases can move to humans and human diseases can infect animals (zoonotic), our complacency can be deadly.
We rely on the natural world – plants and animals – for everything from food and medicines to shelter, clothing and entertainment, so it’s important to know if those resources are sick. Science can give us that information, but we need to pursue it.
If the zoonotic COVID-19 and monkeypox pandemics teach us anything, it’s the need for vigilance about what’s happening in the natural world. Sixty percent of emerging diseases that pose a serious threat to human life come from animals, so we need to learn about those pathogens. Animals and their habitats can reveal what's coming our way.1
Because animals make up a large portion of our food source, we have a stake in keeping them and their habitats healthy. If not, we’re going to get sick. Science serves as an early-warning system for potential problems. But our scientific infrastructure, like our regard for wildlife, isn’t focused in the right way.
Labs as the solution
Many people go into science to answer the big questions that will serve humanity. To succeed, we as scientists are pressured to compete when we should be collaborating. We’re competing for funding sources, for publication credits and for professorships at research universities. That competition can undermine effectiveness by encouraging secrecy. While none of this is new information, the alarming evidence of this failure is the worldwide transmission of zoonotic diseases. However, this failure also contains the template for success.
The labs that produce the data and eventually the vaccines to end pandemics can become the place to start collaboration. For example, the healthcare community might notice an uptick in the prevalence of monkeypox or some other zoonotic disease. A way to quickly get that information to all local labs could be to send an alert sharing the data on increased infection rates and their locations.
An ecology lab studying the dynamics of animals and their interactions within a jungle ecosystem could then look for a disease outbreak in animals. The samples from infected species taken in the field can go to a virology lab to test for any virus. Those results inform the ecology work on host dynamics within that ecological footprint.
Collecting more field data follows, such as studying a monkey and a bat living on opposite sides of a river that never physically interact yet are both infected with the same disease. The virology lab can then explore the action of the virus getting into the cells. Is it airborne, or does it live on a plant surface or in water for a long time?
While that’s taking place, an evolutionary biologist can look at how the virus is changing over time. If it gets more infectious in specific animals, that data can help the ecologist and virologist with their work. Any information that’s helpful for the medical professionals automatically gets channeled back to the community healthcare providers.
The net result might be finding a cure for the animal sickness that prevents the disease from spreading to other species and humans. While not as exciting as a cure for cancer, this kind of collaboration will have a long-term positive impact for everyone. Garnering funding for work that’s multidimensional and interdisciplinary can lead to the science needed to answer those big questions more quickly.
Heading to the jungle and back again
We don’t need to know everything that could possibly become a pandemic, but we do need a variety of people in the field doing that fundamental research. While we're not field researchers, it would have been valuable if our programs, which required rotation through different labs, required us to choose one that did fieldwork. We would have narrowed our focus sooner, just as somebody else in a similar rotation might find it’s the best thing ever.
Encouraging undergraduate and graduate scientists to explore the interconnectivity between their areas of interest and the ecosystem can help those field researchers find their niche. We know of one professor who offers an undergraduate course studying in the Ecuadorian rainforest and another that offers graduate research elsewhere in South America, two places critical for the study of zoonotic diseases.
Whether new or experienced scientists choose to work in the jungle or in a lab, the short-term cost of those experiences, along with the funding for that science, will reap significant benefits now and into the future.
The cost of inaction
The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the COVID-19 pandemic will cost the global economy approximately $12.5 trillion through 2024.2 Johns Hopkins, a hospital at the heart of COVID-19 data collection, suggests a 2020 estimate of the cost to the pandemic in the United States alone is accurate –$16 trillion (with a range of $10 trillion and $22 trillion).3 Taking into account the loss of life, medical costs and ongoing damage to the economy, investing $5 billion in research is a smart investment.
Identifying the next significant zoonotic threat, preparing a vaccine and potentially limiting the outbreak by treating animals is possible, but only if we do the science.
We should begin with prioritizing funding for research to yield essential data. From there, we need collaboration across all scientific disciplines to ensure everyone has a seat at the table to ensure we’re taking the best methodical approach to the research and can cross-check that the best ideas emerge. We also need the intentional development of scientists to fill the roles across the spectrum of disciplines and settings.
We can maintain a healthy ecosystem for all of Earth’s inhabitants, supporting healthier people and healthier animals… but only if we choose to.
About the authors
Han Wei, PhD, is a market development scientist at Beckman Coulter Life Sciences with a focus on building collaborative relationships with external partners. Prior to joining Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, she worked as a research associate and postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University School of Medicine. She received her Doctor of Philosophy in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and a Master of Medicine in Toxicology at The Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Beijing, China. She also received a Bachelor of Medicine in Clinical Medicine (B.M.E.D., – equivalent to M.D.) at Southern Medical University in Guangdong, China.
Brittany Niccum, PhD, is a product manager at IDT and most recently at Beckman Coulter Life Sciences. She started at the company in 2019 as an applications scientist. Prior to joining Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, she studied the evolution of bacteria at Tufts University as a postdoctoral fellow using cheese as a model organism. She started studying microbial evolution at Indiana University for her PhD and has also worked as a bench scientist.
1. Zoonotic diseases. CDC.. https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html. Published July 1, 2021. Accessed December 17, 2022.
2. IMF sees cost of COVID pandemic rising beyond $12.5 trillion estimate. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/imf-sees-cost-covid-pandemic-rising-beyond-125-trillion-estimate-2022-01-20/.
Published January 20, 2022. Accessed December 17, 2022.
3. Weighing the cost of the pandemic – knowing what we know now, how much damage did COVID-19 cause in the United States? Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/publications/weighing-the-cost-of-the-pandemic. Published April 21, 2022. Accessed December 17,