U.S. Will Revive Global Virus-Hunting Effort Ended Last Year

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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 analyze them for viruses.

By then, the Wuhan institute had become the target of rumors that said it had accidentally released the lethal new coronavirus into the world. Those rumors 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 rumors arose in part because one of the institute’s thousands of stored bat samples contained a virus that was a 96 percent 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 $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 over 140,000 biological samples and found over 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 Organization, 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 $100 million Stop Spillover grant from USAID. The group includes the One Health Institute at U.C. 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 Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University in New York.

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