Colorado State University researchers are part of a $12.5 million National Science Foundation-supported institute that will advance research and education around viral emergence – the process of viruses jumping from animals to humans.
The Verena (Viral Emergence Research Initiative) Biology Integration Institute, based at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, will advance a cross-disciplinary research agenda that targets significant sources of emerging infectious diseases. The collaboration will also train scientists at all career stages in what they call “the science of the host-virus network,” as well as provide core scientific skills in data fluency, creating the next generation of viral emergence-focused researchers.
Veterinarian and microbiologist Dr. Anna Fagre, affiliate faculty member in CSU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology; and Professor Greg Ebel, director of the CSU Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, are senior researchers in the Verena institute and will receive about $1.3 million to carry out their portion of the work. Veterinary virologist Dr. Susan VandeWoude, University Distinguished Professor and newly named dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, will serve on the institute’s science policy advisory board.
The Verena initiative launched in 2019 under a previous NSF grant, and Fagre joined the collaboration in spring 2020 – just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up – while completing her Ph.D. at CSU. The overarching theme of the Verena institute is to perform predictive modeling around viral emergence, using tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence.
The COVID-19 pandemic served to underscore the fact that the science of disease emergence – predicting the next potential pandemic – is woefully incomplete. This stems in part from data limitations, according to the institute’s proposal to NSF: At most, 1-3% of mammalian viruses have been described, and a much smaller proportion of viral genomes across the globe have been studied.
A key feature of the Verena initiative is an open-access, ever-expanding database called VIRION that contains the molecular underpinnings of more than 500,000 vertebrate-virus associations. The database and others like it will help the team design hypothesis-driven experiments in the field.
Can bats serve as arbovirus reservoirs?
As a senior researcher at the institute, Fagre will lead an integration project that explores the role of bats in the transmission and maintenance of mosquito-borne viruses.
“We are looking at a few different systems of viruses, and the interactions between bats and mosquitoes, to investigate whether bats can serve as reservoir or amplification hosts for arboviruses in nature,” Fagre said. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased global attention on bats, which host many medically important viruses including coronaviruses.
Fagre will also develop a podcast that explores scientific themes of viruses and newly published research, with a focus on highlighting diverse voices of early-career scientists who have led significant research in the field.
Ebel is a virologist who works primarily in mosquito- and tick-borne diseases. His role in Verena will be to oversee model-guided experiments that shed light on mosquito-flavivirus compatibility, with the goal of deepening knowledge around which mosquito species may be most likely to drive viral emergence. The team estimates that today, 90% of possible mosquito-virus combinations – e.g., dengue virus in Aedes aegypti mosquito species, remain unknown.
Verena’s lead investigator is Georgetown Aassistant Rresearch Pprofessor Colin Carlson. Additional co-investigators from the University of Oklahoma, Washington State University and the University of Florida will lead the institute’s theme-related work streams, which include: transmission and the emergence of ecological dynamics; host and virus-omics and the rules of compatibility; and global change and the emergence of new host-virus interactions.
How does climate change affect viral emergence?
The Verena team will also expand understanding of how climate change affects viral emergence; for example, how weather events or temperature and humidity conditions affect mammal and arthropod population dynamics and their immune systems.
Training scientists in the cross-disciplinary methods used by the team will also be a significant part of the overall project, with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students being trained in the first five years.
Both Ebel and Fagre will help train postdoctoral researchers and Ph.D. students who will be brought to CSU through the Verena grant. The educational aspect of the project is critical to its longevity and success, Ebel said.
“The problem of SARS-CoV-2 isn’t just a virology problem, and it isn’t just a public health problem,” Ebel said. “It’s also a problem of ecosystems, which is related to problems of economics, and problems of how we use the land, and so forth … So what we need to be doing is training people to think and work across these scales.”
Said Verena lead investigator Colin Carlson, of Georgetown: “The days of ‘quiet periods’ between epidemics are over – from this point on, we’re headed from COVID-19 straight into monkeypox, into the next public health crisis. Our goal is to build the data and tools we need to know what’s coming tomorrow – and maybe, actually, be ready next time.”