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MSU researchers part of $4.4 million grant to examine spread of infectious disease

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Posted at 2:54 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 14:54:05-05

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Thursday researchers at Michigan State University announced they are partnering with colleagues from the U.S. and four other countries to develop biosurveillance plans to monitor and prevent infectious disease spread by migratory birds.

The project is funded by a $4.4 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Biological Threat Reduction Program of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The funds will help to establish the Avian Zoonotic Disease Network, which will be the first threat-reduction initiative of its kind. The network will be along the Mediterranean and Black Sea Flyway (MBSF), the main route for birds migrating between Africa and Europe. The four countries from the region joining the U.S. in the project are Ethiopia, Georgia, Jordan, and Ukraine.

The research will be conducted by a multidisciplinary team of scientists that includes bioinformatics experts, veterinary virologists, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, statisticians, ornithologists, and disease ecologists.

The MSU team is led by associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and expert in migratory bird behavior and disease ecology, Jen Owen, and includes Jean Tsao, also an associate professor in the department.

Owen noted that little is known about birds’ roles in harboring or moving zoonotic diseases, which are passed from animals to humans, along the MBSF. She adds that they can be a factor in a pandemic-level spread.

Nearly half the bird species in the world are migratory. Billions travel long distances and can potentially bring pathogens into new locations. Birds are the source of both the Newcastle disease virus and most influenza viruses, two of the most economically devastating pathogens to the poultry industry.

“Since the 20th century, some of the worst pandemics are from zoonotic pathogens, including influenza viruses that circulate in wild aquatic birds and, more recently, coronaviruses that likely originate from wild bats, both of which typically pass through an intermediary host before reaching humans,” Owen said. “Birds harbor a type of coronavirus as well, but it’s not known how prevalent they are or the risk of spillover into non-avian populations.”

Recent innovations in next-generation DNA sequencing and bioinformatics have led to decreasing costs and better access to technologies that aid in detection and diagnostics. Owen said that the thoroughness of the approaches allows scientists to uncover a broad range of pathogens in animals.

“We keep learning the hard way that being reactive rather than proactive can have catastrophic consequences,” Owen said. “Efforts are not uniform from one country to the next, and countries do not all have the same capacity for surveillance, which leaves gaps in understanding the distribution of pathogens.”

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