A New Project to Track Animal Diseases Before They Infect Humans

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Back at the start of 2009, I thought I was sure where the next influenza pandemic would come from: Asia. I’d spent a few years in the region following the steady progression of the H5N1 avian flu virus as it spread from wild and domestic birds to human beings, where it has killed at least 306 people since 2003.

Asia — and especially southern China, home to dense populations of humans and birds — has usually been where new flu virus first arise, infecting animals before mutating and jumping to humans. The 1957 pandemic was known as the Asian flu and the 1968 pandemic was called the Hong Kong flu after their points of origin, and even the deadly 1918 pandemic, though it was popularly termed the Spanish flu, may well have come from Asia too.

Flu experts assumed it was just a matter of time before the H5N1 virus mutated and gained the ability to spread easily from person to person, triggering the first new flu pandemic since 1968, so Asia was where epidemiologists focused most of their monitoring, in the hopes of catching the new virus in its early stages.

As it turned out, we were all wrong. The virus that would trigger the H1N1/A pandemic in the spring of 2009 emerged in Mexico, and appeared to jump not from birds but from pigs. (Hence the term “swine flu.”) It was as if the world’s epidemiologists has been preparing for an invasion from the east only to be hit in our soft underbelly. While the Mexican government should be applauded for reacting to the new virus relatively well  — and more importantly, in an open fashion — the fact that it emerged in a medical blind spot almost certainly slowed the international reaction to the new pandemic. Luckily, H1N1/A ended up being fairly weak, but if the virus had been a killer on level with the 1918 pandemic, that lost time could have meant lost lives.

That’s why it’s so welcome to see the launch of the new Predict project, an online mapping tool that will allow scientists to track outbreaks of animals diseases that could threaten human beings. Funded by the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — and led by a group of institutions, including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the innovative new Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI) — the system will monitor data from World Health Organization alerts, news reports, online message boards for epidemiologists, to create a digital map of where animal outbreaks are occurring around the world and where they might threaten human beings.

The consortium was put together in 2009, during the H1N1 pandemic, and the hope is that a better information tracking system will help scientists avoid being caught off guard. As Damien Joly of the WCS told the New York Times:

We strongly believe in public access to the data we collect. It doesn’t do public health much good to collect data and let it sit while it awaits publication.

The Predict tool (download a PDF about the project here) is just the latest indication that the global human health community is finally beginning to take animal disease seriously. That hasn’t always been the case — just compare the vast World Health Organization to its relatively tiny animal counterpart, the World Organization for Animal Health. But nearly 75% of all new, emerging or reemerging diseases affecting human beings in the 21st century originated in animals, including HIV/AIDS, SARS and influenza.

What’s needed is a “one health” approach of the sort pioneered by Nathan Wolfe of the GFVI, who patrols areas in the deep developing world where humans and animals closely overlap. We may not be able to stop the next flu pandemic or new emerging disease as it passed from animals to human beings — but we should know when it happens.

More from TIME on the intersection between animal and human health:

Living Cheek by Beak in Indonesia

A Wing and a Prayer