Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, scientists at Virginia Tech were busy planning a new infectious disease center, focused on disease transmission from animals.
Turns out their timing was excellent. Because now, there’s a whole new arsenal being created to fight the current pandemic and perhaps prevent future ones.
They knew it was a matter of when, not if, a virus would jump species and cause widespread illness and death. So, when it began, early this year, dozens of scientists, with specialties in fields like life sciences, veterinary medicine, natural resources and agriculture were already in place to tackle the problem from a variety of angles.
“The critical mass of Virginia Tech faculty working in the area of infectious disease and pathogens is impressive, and their enthusiasm for the new center is exciting," said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. "Additionally, the creation of this new center could not be more timely.”
X.J. Meng is the founding director of the new institute. The Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, Arthropod-borne Pathogens is all about diseases caused by germs that spread from wildlife to people.
“I think sometimes that the public doesn't understand that the majority of the emerging human infections, especially viral disease, comes from animals.”
One reason for that is that wildlife is getting less, well wild, less remote from human populations. Close enough to spread new viruses that don’t necessarily hurt THEM, but when they infect a human with no immunity, we see what can happen. But you can’t blame the animals for it.
Meng says human activity is to blame for some of these emerging human infections. “Activities such as deforestation, large scale farming practices, backyard farming and climate change. All these human activities bring animal pathogens closer to human habitat and therefore promote spillover that can cause contagious infections."
Talk about a multi-faceted approach. It raises so many directions to pursue for this new institute. And it may surprise you that until now, not much study has actually been done on these zoonotic viruses. But that’s changing fast because we need to stop this virus in its tracks.
Meng believes, “The most cost-effective way to combat those emerging human infections is to address these animal reservoirs. If we can devise a strategy to prevent and control these so called animal viruses in their own host, before they jump species, infecting us, to me, that's the most effective way to control them.”
Because once the virus makes that jump, we humans are great at quickly and easily spreading it. That’s why Dr. Meng would like to see the creation of early warning stations at important sites and potential hot spots around the world, like we have for HIV and other infectious diseases.
“And this is going to be very difficult and everybody has to buy in,” says Meng. "Everybody has to collaborate and find a way to work together.”
He points out that it’s not only scientists, but government legislatures all over the world to that must join and support the effort.
“Until we do that, I don't see a realistic chance" of beating this Coronavirus.
But as political positions and problems of transparency and trust cloud the issue, the possibility of a global solution to this pandemic continues to fade. Dr. Meng fears that without an all-out effort shared by everyone, then everyone suffers.
“You can certainly contain the virus in your own country temporarily, but if the virus continues to spread like crazy to other parts of the world, sooner or later, the virus will come back to your country.”
This is just the reality of how this contagious disease, you have to work, collaborate globally, he says.
“The virus doesn't need s visa to travel from one country to another country. And so, we have to work as a team, worldwide, and to effectively contain this pandemic and to prevent other future ones.”
So, this is the world we live in-- united by Covid-19 and divided by it.
X.J. Meng, the founding director of the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens and University Distinguished Professor of Virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.