March 29 (EIRNS)—Recently, the State Department’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that funding for a major disease research program, PREDICT, would be eliminated at the end of its 10-year funding cycle in March 2020. PREDICT was initiated in response to the 2005 H5N1 avian flu crisis, and its focus has been on zoonotics, diseases that can jump from animals to humans, such as the coronaviruses, SARS, MERS and COVID-19. USAID indicated that a new program would be forthcoming, but didn’t provide any details.
PREDICT was a part of USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) program, and through its expertise and research, discovered over 1,100 unique viruses, and of these, over 86% had been previously unknown. It also trained more than 5,000 people in over 30 countries, many of them the poorest countries.
According to the New York Times of Oct. 25, 2019, “Dennis Carroll, the former director of USAID’s emerging threats division who helped design PREDICT, oversaw it for a decade and retired when it was shut down. The surveillance project is closing because of ‘the ascension of risk-averse bureaucrats,’ he said. Because USAID’s chief mission is economic aid, he added, some [unnamed] federal officials felt uncomfortable funding cutting-edge science like tracking exotic pathogens.”
The PREDICT Project has been headquartered at the University of California-Davis, with cooperation from other agencies, such as Metabiota, the Smithsonian Institution and the EcoHealth Alliance, and had been working with partners in many countries.
It had the capability for global surveillance of zoonosis—diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. These can be transmitted via fungi, bacteria, parasites and viruses. Some zoonotic diseases include bubonic plague, rabies, Ebola, malaria, Zika fever, and the new coronavirus. Nearly 75% of all new and emerging diseases affecting humans since the beginning of the 21st century are zoonotic.
Similar research projects within the U.S., such as the Plum Island Animal Disease Center of New York (PIADCNY), near Long Island, which has operated since 1954, and which recently came under the DHS Directorate for Science and Technology, have proven their value many times over. The work performed there was largely responsible for the elimination of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in America. Also called “hoof-and-mouth,” it is a highly contagious and deadly virus affecting cloven-hoofed animals, especially bovids. The infection can have severe economic and food-security consequences, resulting in billions of dollars of economic losses, since the infected animals have to be culled from the herd and killed; this could also mean meat and dairy shortages for the consumer. PIADCNY is currently collaborating with a number of countries to eliminate FMD globally. Although it can be transmitted to humans, according to the National Institutes of Health, “it crosses the species barrier with difficulty and with little effect.”
In 2005, the DHS has announced that PIADCNY would eventually be phased out, and a new facility to be constructed in Manhattan, Kansas, to be known as the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would continue and expand on the research currently being done. However, risk assessments have delayed the actual construction of the facility.
Not only should the funding for PREDICT be reinstated, but also all R&D facilities with a capacity to research diseases should be activated and geared-up on a wartime footing across the nation. Perhaps it is time for federal officials to bring in such experts in disease control as NASA researchers and scientists, to provide pathways to increase our nation’s (and the world’s) capacity to discover and overcome zoonotic diseases.