KU professor part of team that won NSF grant to create international center to predict, prevent next bird flu pandemic
photo by: Courtesy: A. Townsend Peterson
A University of Kansas professor is one of the leaders creating a new international center to predict and prevent the next bird flu pandemic.
A. Townsend Peterson, a distinguished professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, was part of a team that received an approximately $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the International Center for Avian Influenza Pandemic Prediction and Prevention.
The center will be headquartered at the University of Oklahoma, but through Peterson’s involvement a portion of the center’s work will take place at KU.
Avian flu has been in the news recently as it has played a role in killing millions of chickens, which has led to a large increase in the price of eggs. But various strains of avian flu can be even more devastating as they infect human populations. The 1918 flu pandemic showed that influenza viruses that start off in birds can kill millions of humans.
The new international center — which has partnerships with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California-Berkeley and other institutions — hopes to find those new strains that could turn particularly dangerous before they begin spreading rapidly.
“This center would have ongoing viral monitoring around the world, but particularly in regions that tend to give rise to pandemic flu strains,” Peterson said in a press release. “We would have a predictive understanding of which types of new bird flu strains have pandemic potential. You can imagine the value of monitoring wild bird populations and seeing all the standing variation in flu viruses, and being able to say, ‘Hey, this one virus — this is what we need to watch.'”
The new center expects to be in a proof-of-concept phase for the next 18 months, and then hopes to win significant amounts of new funding. Peterson said researchers would do much work in testing computer models that track “spillover,” which is where one species — say, a wild bird — begins infecting another species, such as a domesticated chicken. As those models become more fined-tuned, Peterson said they have the potential to produce accurate simulations about how the flu virus may spread.
“Part of that potential is — does it stay just in one place? Or does it spread? If it does spread, does it take years, or does it spread in days?” Peterson said.
If the center works as hoped, it will become an early-warning system for researchers and public health officials as they decide where to devote resources to fight emerging pandemic threats.
Peterson said the massive economic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the world’s economy has helped make projects like this one more viable with funding agencies and others. But Peterson said he and other researchers are sounding the alarm that significantly more efforts need to be undertaken to protect the country from future pandemics.
“If you want a stronger America, you make an America that has a strong public health system that can respond to socially driven health threats like vaccine hesitancy,” Peterson said in a release. “Measles was gone, polio was gone, but now they’re popping up in communities that are less well-vaccinated. And we’ll see more mosquito-borne diseases — like West Nile virus, Zika, chikungunya and dengue — all of which have recently emerged in the U.S. and each in a very different way.”
— KU News Services contributed to this report.