Washington University researches animals transmitting viruses to humans


ST. LOUIS – Will our relationship with animas have to change to prevent another pandemic?

Last month, a World Health Organization research team concluded that COVID-19 came from an animal. It’s believed the coronavirus outbreak originated in a Wuhan, China wet market that sold live animals and exotic wildlife, including bats. The Washington University School of Medicine is looking for answers as well.

“What’s not clear right now is whether the infection occurred directly from bats to humans or whether from bats it went to some other animal—an intermediate host—before jumping into humans,” said Dr. David Wang, principal investigator of the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Dr. Wang’s research delves into preventing zoonosis – the transfer of viruses from animals to humans.

“Just like two humans can transmit a respiratory virus to each other, animals can sneeze or cough and release droplets carrying viruses, and humans who are in close proximity might inhale that,” Wang said.

Washington University is one of 10 institutions around the world doing the research to prepare for the next pandemic and perhaps provide insight into the current one.

Is it possible to implement measures to prevent viral zoonosis and is it the time to do so?

“That’s a really challenging question cause sometimes the animals are exotic animals that we think of, like bats,” Wang said. “But sometimes it’s something like chickens or turkeys, so influenza is transmitted from chickens and other poultry and in some ways, changing our farming practices could be a way to reduce that risk but these are people’s livelihoods so that’s difficult to change.”

The researchers are studying mosquitoes, ticks, camels, and other animals.

“In terms of wildlife, if we can better recognize the threats but also help try to preserve the natural habitat and reduce the interface of human and potential zoonotic carrying animals, then those are ways to try to mitigate the risk,” Wang said.

The National Academy of Science says 70% of emerging infectious diseases come from animals. Dr. Wang’s team is on track to develop a quick and effective response to study transmission from animals to humans and develop treatments, such as therapeutic antibodies.

“The idea that we can have an arsenal of drugs and vaccines at our disposal to broadly combat infections is sort of the holy grail of research,” Wang said.

The Washington University School of Medicine’s research is supported by a five-year, $8.1 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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