LAWRENCE — As humanity tries to find its footing after the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Kansas is taking steps to help ready the United States and the rest of the world for future global health crises.
A. Townsend Peterson, a University Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and curator of ornithology at the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, is part of a team of researchers that earned funding from the National Science Foundation to establish the International Center for Avian Influenza Pandemic Prediction and Prevention, dubbed “ICAIP3.”
The mission of the new multi-institutional center is to tackle grand challenges in global health with a focus on avian-influenza pandemic prediction and prevention. Most famously, the 1918 flu pandemic showed influenza viruses that start off in birds can kill millions of humans. But avian influenza, or “bird flu,” has triggered outbreaks around the world in recent years that killed billions of poultry and wild birds, as well as hundreds of people.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for the world, highlighting the importance of investing in public health and the basic science underpinnings of public health," Peterson said. "It has had a scale of economic and public health impact that is unparalleled in our lifetime. This center would have ongoing viral monitoring around the world, but particularly in regions that tend to give rise to pandemic flu strains. We would have a predictive understanding of which types of new bird flu strains have pandemic potential. You can imagine the value of monitoring wild bird populations and seeing all the standing variation in flu viruses, and being able to say, ‘Hey, this one virus — this is what we need to watch.’”
The ICAIP3 center will be supported by the Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Preparedness (PIPP) initiative, part of the NSF's efforts to understand the science behind pandemics and build the ability to prevent and respond to future outbreaks.
"We need to be thinking big-picture when it comes to pandemics," Peterson said. "COVID-19 is just one example of many diverse pandemics that have occurred throughout history. The Spanish flu, the plague pandemics, typhoid fever and avian influenza are all examples of diseases that have had a significant impact on human health and the economy. We need to be proactive in our approach to understanding and preventing these types of outbreaks, rather than waiting for them to happen and scrambling to respond."
The total award for the PIPP project is roughly $1 million. Aside from KU, the ICAIP3 project has partners at the University of Oklahoma, where the work is headquartered, as well as the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California-Berkeley,and the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Peterson said the collaborators aim to apply for additional funding once ICAIP3 has succeeded as a proof-of-concept during its initial 18-month phase, structured to align with the PIPP aim to explore ideas for later competition for center-level funding.
The team will work to establish ongoing viral monitoring around the world, focusing most on regions that historically give rise to pandemic flu strains. The goal is to build understanding of the types of new strains holding pandemic potential and help predict and prevent outbreaks in coming decades.
Peterson and his collaborators will test available computer models that track “spillover,” where a disease can spread between animal species (“reservoir-poultry spillover” happens when wild birds give a disease to chickens, for example). Next, the team will work to improve these modelling approaches and run spillover simulations.
“If we do this well, what will come out is a model of the geographic, operational and individual-scale behavior of a pandemic-potential virus,” Peterson said. “Part of that potential is — does it stay just in one place? Or does it spread? If it does spread, does it take years, or does it spread in days?”
In essence, the KU researcher likened the work to devising an early-warning system to benefit researchers and public health officials as they decide where to devote resources for maximum effect.
With avian influenzas, part of this work must incorporate data about birds’ migratory patterns.
“You get some early warning of an outbreak going on and you say, ‘Okay, we're pretty sure it's a specific hypothetical virus — now, what are its most likely patterns of behavior?’” Peterson said. “How quickly will it leak from wild birds into domestic birds? If it’s coming from Asia, where would we expect it to appear in the U.S.? If you had this thing spread in the summer and get up to Siberia, then the jump may be way down into the U.S. because some of those birds think eastern Siberia is western Alaska and migrate south into the Americas in the fall. We would have a model that's far better than what we have right now.”
Along with integrating huge amounts of disparate data into improved computer models, the collaboration will aim to build a community of researchers around a “One-Health (Human-Animal-Environment Systems) approach” they said is needed take on “the complexity, dynamics and the tele-coupling of HAES across multiple spatial and temporal scales and organization levels.” Peterson said he hoped the work also would strengthen the nation’s ability to track disease in birds and other species, as well as safeguard public health and prevent societal disruption.
“What in our lifetime has had the scale of economic and public health impact compared to COVID-19?” Peterson said. “Maybe 9/11, if you could count the war efforts after that. We're too young to have lived through the World Wars, which probably were on the same scale here in America. But what, since then — can you think of anything? If you want a stronger America, you make an America that has a strong public health system that can respond to socially driven health threats like vaccine hesitancy. Measles was gone, polio was gone, but now they're popping up in communities that are less well-vaccinated. And we’ll see more mosquito-borne diseases — like West Nile virus, Zika, chikungunya and dengue — all of which have recently emerged in the U.S. and each in a very different way.”
Top photo: The Magnificent Frigatebird, a marine bird that ranges widely over ocean environments. Credit: A. Townsend Peterson.