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How Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

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“Had we set it up in 2019, when this virus hit the US, we would have had instant access to data that would have enabled us to see it floating around, for example, in New York City without doing anything else,” said Dr. Said Mina.

Updated

Apr. 15, 2021, 11:32 p.m. ET

Although the observatory could not have identified the new coronavirus, it would have detected an abnormally high number of infections from the coronavirus family, including those that cause colds. It may also have shown that the new coronavirus interacted with the patient’s immune system in unexpected ways, causing tell-tale markers in the blood. This would have been a signal to start genetic sequencing of patient samples to identify the culprit, and possibly have provided reasons to close the city earlier, said Dr. Mina. (Similarly, serology would not be able to detect the emergency of a new virus variant, such as the contagious coronavirus variants discovered in South Africa and England, before they spread elsewhere Leave standard genomic sequencing of virus test samples.)

The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks and other blood sources, as well as a system for obtaining consent from patients and donors. It also faces the problem of funding, noted Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington. Health insurance companies are unlikely to pay the bill, as serological tests are typically not used by doctors to treat people.

Dr. Mina estimated the observatory would cost about $ 100 million to go live. He pointed out that, according to his calculations, the federal government provided diagnostics company Ellume with more than twice as much to run enough rapid Covid tests to meet American needs for just a handful of days. A pathogen observatory, he said, is like a weather forecasting system based on a variety of buoys and sensors around the world that passively reports events where and when they occur. These systems were funded by government grants and are widely appreciated.

The predictive power of serology is well worth the investment, said Jessica Metcalf, Princeton epidemiologist and member of the observatory team. A few years ago, she and her staff found in a smaller survey that immunity to measles in Madagascar was threateningly low. In fact, there was an outbreak in 2018 that killed more than 10,000 children.

Now the half million plasma samples in Dr. Minas freezers, collected last year by plasma donation company Octopharma at sites across the country, underwent serological testing that focuses on the new coronavirus and is funded with a $ 2 million grant from Open Philanthropy. The tests had to wait for the researchers to set up a new robotic test facility and process the samples. Now they are working on their first batches.

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Robert Dunfee