Africa is set to benefit from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google’s $14 million grant to support partners working in Southeast Asia and Africa to prevent the next pandemic.
Google.org’s Predict and Prevent initiative is supporting efforts to identify hot spots where diseases may emerge, detect new pathogens circulating in animal and human populations, and respond to outbreaks before they become global crises. Several new lethal infectious diseases crop up every year. Examples include the well-known killers, HIV/AIDS, bird flu, and SARS, as well as drug-resistant strains of ancient scourges malaria and tuberculosis. Three-quarters of new diseases are zoonoses, meaning they’ve jumped from animals to humans.
“Business as usual won’t prevent the next AIDS or SARS. The teams we’re funding today are on the frontiers of digital and genetic early detection technology. We hope that their work, with partners across environmental, animal, and human health boundaries, will help solve centuries-old problems and save millions of lives,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director, Google.org.
Identifying hot spots
Knowing where to look is critical to disease surveillance. Climate change and deforestation increase human-animal contact, and with it, disease spreads. “The holy grail is to predict disease outbreaks before they happen. For Rift Valley fever and malaria, long-term weather forecasts and deforestation maps can show us where to look for outbreaks, up to six months in advance,” said Frank Rijsberman, Program Director, Google.org.
• The Woods Hole Research Center – $2 million multi-year grant to support high-resolution satellite mapping of forests to enhance monitoring of forest loss and settlement expansion in tropical countries. WHRC will create information to share with environmental and human experts so they can better anticipate the emergence of infectious diseases.
• Columbia University International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) – $900,000 multi-year grant to improve the use of forecasts, rainfall data and other climate information in East Africa, and link weather and climate experts to health specialists so they can better predict outbreaks of infectious diseases.
• University Corporation for Atmospheric Research – $900,000 multi-year grant to build and implement a system that will use weather projections to inform and target response to disease threats in West Africa.
Detecting diseases earlier
Genetic detection filters viral information in DNA to uncover deadly new pathogens, and digital detection mines online data to reveal early signals of possible epidemics. “We want to stop viruses dead in their tracks – their animal tracks – before they jump to humans,” noted Dr. Mark Smolinski, Google.org’s Threat Detective.
• Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI) – $5.5 million multi-year grant (with equal funding from the Skoll Foundation) to support the collection and analysis of blood samples of humans and animals in hot spots within Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Malaysia, Lao PDR and Madagascar. The GVFI team, headed by Dr. Nathan Wolfe, has demonstrated that potentially pathogenic animal viruses jump more frequently to humans than previously believed and will work to detect early evidence of future pandemics.
• Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health – $2.5 million multi-year grant to support research to accelerate the discovery of new pathogens, and to enable rapid, regional response to outbreaks by establishing molecular diagnostics in hot spot countries including Sierra Leone and Bangladesh. Dr. Ian Lipkin and colleagues have discovered more than 75 viruses to date, established critical links between infection and the development of acute and chronic diseases, including pneumonia, meningitis/encephalitis, cancer, and mental illness.
• Children’s Hospital Corporation supporting Healthmap and ProMED-mail – $3M multi-year grant to combine HealthMap’s digital detection efforts with ProMED-mail’s global network of human, animal, and ecosystem health specialists. Together, these programs will assess current emerging disease reporting systems, expand regional networks in Africa and Southeast Asia, and develop new tools to improve the detection and reporting of outbreaks.
“On every continent, viruses move from animals into people. GVFI’s mission is to monitor this viral exchange. Working in animal markets, with restaurant workers, and with hunters at the end of the road, we sort through this traffic to try to stop deadly diseases before they spread,” said Dr. Nathan Wolfe, Founder and Director, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative.