Health & Medicine

UC Davis gets $85 million to lead fight to prevent deadly Asian, African pandemics

A doctor receives an Ebola vaccine from a health care worker at Congolese treatment center in Nyankunde.
A doctor receives an Ebola vaccine from a health care worker at Congolese treatment center in Nyankunde. Provided by Mission Aviation Fellowship

The U.S. Agency for International Development gave the University of California, Davis, an $85 million vote of confidence with a five-year grant to train academic researchers in Asia and Africa in preventing animal diseases from spilling over into human populations, the university announced Wednesday.

Woutrina Smith, the principal investigator at UC Davis, said her team takes the view that humans don’t exist in isolation and that there’s a connection between the health of people, animals and the environment. They call this concept One Health, and medical and veterinary researchers at universities and nongovernmental agencies around the world are adopting it.

“We’ll be working closely with established networks of universities that are already partnering to try and understand how we can work more as a team to be able to understand these spillovers, disease prevention, how what we know about animals feeds over to protecting the health of people and vice versa,” Smith said. “Those are some of the basic ideas of why we’re doing this as a health professional school that has both veterinary and human health represented and bringing the environment in as well.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Medical Association have endorsed the One Health approach since 2008. Smith said UC Davis began 10 to 15 years ago to work collaboratively to promote the health of people and animals in their shared environments.

While the UCD-led consortium just secured the grant, Smith said, the university has worked with U.S. AID for 10 years on a $200 million project known as PREDICT to train private-sector experts in Africa and Asia to safely do One Health surveillance in areas where wildlife and humans coexisted.

That capability didn’t exist in many countries on those continents. That’s why Ebola, swine flu and other pandemics caught the world off guard.

“We’ve really established teams in these countries, where we expect new viruses to spill over from animals to people,” Smith said. The teams “are prepared to detect them earlier, respond earlier and contain outbreaks. ... The One Health approach has really built the expertise of the in-country teams. They’re now much more able to be of use to their (government) ministries and their universities.”

Smith said more than 6,000 people in 30 countries not only gained marketable skills in disease detection, but also learned how to compete against foreign businesses. In a testament to their success, UC Davis’ One Health Institute reported they found more than 1,000 viruses that pose a public health concern.

UCD continues to work with some of those teams, but it was close to wrapping up work on the PREDICT project when U.S. AID announced it was seeking a team to lead the second phase of the One Health Workforce project. Since PREDICT was almost over, Smith said, the UCD team decided to take on new work.

The team won the grant, beating out a consortium led by the University of Minnesota and Tufts University that led the initial, five-year phase of One Health WorkForce.

“We will continue to look for ways to continue to collaborate with the previous groups because they did a lot of great work,” Smith said. “We would love help that continue. We have reached out to them to explore how that might work.”

UCD’s One Health Institute will work alongside Asian and African academics to design and execute activities such as developing sustainable training programs that will teach current and future professionals the skills and competencies needed to address the complex health challenges of zoonotic diseases.

In some cases, Smith said, the consortium’s team will be working with the same people they worked with on the PREDICT project.

Smith’s consortium includes not only UC Davis colleagues from other academic disciplines but also a range of experts from Columbia University, EcoHealth Alliance, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Ata Health Strategies, the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.