Story at a glance
- Researchers in the Predict program were disease detectives, searching the world for new threats.
- Some of the most dangerous diseases come from viruses that jump from animals to humans.
- The program’s funding is running out due to lack of political support.
- Some of the program’s work may get picked up by other agencies.
Predict was focused on viruses that can infect humans from animal hosts, such as rabies, Ebola, HIV and influenza. A new virus is most likely to make the jump into humans in areas where people are often in contact with animals. Often, these are also the places with fewer local medical resources, making support from USAID, which is run out of the State Department, vital to identifying risks, training local personnel and figuring out reasonable prevention measures.
The program has been funded for 10 years, but it was not renewed for another five-year funding cycle. Although Predict saw enthusiastic support under the Bush and Obama administrations, the past two years have seen a rise in “risk-averse bureaucrats,” Dennis Carroll, the program’s former director, told The New York Times. Most of USAID’s programs are more economically focused, so the officials were uncomfortable with funding what looks like a solely scientific research program. But pandemic threats are a risk — maybe even the biggest risk — to national security, others argue, including Ron Klain at Vox.
Some of Predict’s activities may be picked up by organizations like the Pentagon, which runs the Disease Threat Reduction Agency, and the National Institutes of Health. But so far, there is no agency with the capacity to support the fieldwork Predict performed in identifying previously unknown viruses in the wild. For example, Predict scientists found a new strain of Ebola living in a species of bat that roosts in houses, unlike the known strain that infected bats found in caves.
“We generated an illustrated book on how to keep bats out of houses by putting screens on windows or mesh below the roof thatch. That’s the kind of thing Predict paid for,” Jonathan Epstein, a veterinarian who worked with Predict, told The New York Times. “Predict needed to go on for 20 years, not 10.”