Leveraging natural history collections to prevent the next pandemic
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF) in collaboration with the Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) convened a task force of researchers linked with natural history collections from around the world. The primary goal of the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID-19 task force is to discuss the benefits of leveraging natural history collections to better understand host-pathogen relationships, in particular SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, and other pathogens with pandemic potential. In a recently published commentary in BioScience, these researchers argue that humanity’s incomplete understanding of the world’s biodiversity has weakened our ability to fully understand the etiology and dynamics of COVID-19. By leveraging information from natural history collections across the world (together which contain >3 billion preserved specimens), the scientific community can greatly increase its understanding of the ecological and evolutionary dynamics between host species and a pathogen of interest. Each museum specimen contains a wealth of information, not only about itself, but also about its environment and associated pathogens. In the context of COVID-19, scientists can leverage museum specimens to uncover critical information about potential host species, related pathogens, and the location and timing of host-pathogen associations. Beyond COVID-19, this type of information can help narrow the search for pathogens with pandemic-potential, as it helps scientists target particular geographies and host species likely to contain the next deadly disease.
Dr. Kendra Phelps, EcoHealth Alliance Research Scientist working on the WAB-Net project, is a member of the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID-19 task force. She is helping to develop ‘best practices’ for preserving microbiological samples and associated host data in natural history collections, to ensure that a high volume and quality of data is captured by researchers who collect voucher specimens. Kendra is also working to facilitate collaborations between field researchers and natural history collections to improve museum infrastructure, increase the level of pathobiology research derived from museum collections, and facilitate zoonotic disease risk assessments. These actions all aim to improve: (1) our overall understanding of host-pathogen associations, (2) our ability to predict future pandemics, and (3) our ability to effectively respond to pandemics like COVID-19, if and when they arise.
Link to presentation by Dr. Kendra Phelps, titled ‘Preserving viral evidence‘: (59:51 – 1:12:32)