Multiple teams of virus hunters have been on a mission, scouring our planet’s rainforests to discover previously unknown viruses that carry the potential of transforming into pandemics. It is all part of a $200 million project called PREDICT, part of USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) program. The PREDICT program was launched 2009 in an effort to better understand and discover viruses with pandemic potential that can move between animals and humans. In the seven years since its inception, PREDICT has examined 74,000 animals and discovered nearly 1,000 new viruses, among them being new rabies-like viruses and many SARS-like viruses in bats across 3 continents. One team of virus hunters has been busy exploring the Borneo rain forest in Malaysia, where they have sampled over 1,300 animals. Bats by far have proved to be the most fascinating creatures they have sampled. This is not surprising considering bats have long been known to carry a host of killer viruses and were the originators of the Ebola virus in West Africa as well as the pneumonia pandemic in 2003, known as SARS.
However, animals alone are not to blame for the recent rise in outbreaks of deadly viruses throughout the world. Humans, in this regard, have arguably had a bigger role in contributing to this pandemic phenomenon. The viruses discovered by the PREDICT teams have been circulating between different species of animals for thousands of years, often without causing them any noticeable harm. However, much more recently, humans have started entering the ecosystems of these animals as a consequence of deforestation. Ever increasing interactions between humans and the animals carrying these viruses have indisputably resulted in nasty outbreaks in the past, and the end is nowhere in sight. Only 15% of the world’s rainforests still remain intact, while the rest has been chopped down, converted into farmlands for agriculture or even developed in order to accommodate for our ever increasing population.
The project, despite its undoubted success, has drawn its fair share of critics, among them being infectious disease scientists who made a fair argument that it is not very useful to make a huge list of all possible viruses, as it is immensely difficult to predict the ones that hold the potential to turn into epidemics. The money, after all, could be better spent on dealing with the countless diseases that do currently impact humans. However, the virus hunters and the authorities backing them seem undeterred by all the criticism as they boldly move towards their mission of finding the next pandemic before it finds us. Only time will tell if these efforts ultimately prove successful or futile in deterring the viruses that can cause us great harm.