Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Scientific Collections vs. Pandemics: an unfair match?

Fig. 1. Ebola Signs and Symptoms.

Editor’s Note: SciColl held our first community workshop on Emerging Infectious Diseases in October 2014. This October we're posting several pieces that highlight the important work where collections continue to play an integral role.

Editor’s Note: SciColl intern, Ebubechi Okpalugo from Pembroke College, contributed this article as part of her time in the SciColl office during Summer 2017.

Sweeping across three countries and claiming over 11,000 lives, the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak is almost impossible to forget. First identified in 1976, in a remote village named Zaire in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been multiple outbreaks of the virus since. But the 2014 pandemic, caused by the Zaire strain, has been the most deadly. Striking on the border of three of the poorest African nations, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the virus spread to an unprecedented scale. Liberia, the worst hit, was not officially declared Ebola-free until the 13th of January 2016.

Could it have been stopped quicker? That’s where scientific collections come in.

At first, natural history museums may seem entirely unrelated to the relentless speed and devastation of an infectious disease outbreak. When in fact, that’s where they’re often at their most useful. During a pandemic, the first things to determine are: the pathogen causing the disease, how it emerged, how it is transmitted and how it can be maintained. If undocumented, acquiring this information under the time pressure of trying to save thousands of lives can be almost impossible. But the answers needed may be available within scientific collections of museums and research institutes.

Diane Diellius, who played a large role in the establishment of SciColl, recalls when a vaccine for MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus) was being developed and camels were of interest as they transmitted the virus to human. ‘Do you happen to know anyone with a camel collection?’ her colleague asked – where exactly does one start to look for this information?

If continuous effort had been made to collect and maintain field samples of infected human serum samples after previous smaller outbreaks of Ebola, the story of the 2014 pandemic may have been very different. Collections like these would allow the local distribution of Ebola viruses to be identified, and tabs to be kept on new mutations through genome sequencing. Therefore through vaccinations and diagnostic tests, a possible outbreak could have been predicted and prevented, or stopped much earlier in its tracks.

Fig. 2. Bat specimens in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

These benefits can only be realized through continued collaboration between the public health sector and the research communities that rely on scientific collections. Three years after SciColl’s EID workshop, Diane discussed the advancements that have been made, but also ways in which the movement for transparency across international collections has been hindered. People cannot share or collaborate if they aren’t speaking the same language, and there’s the issue of what taxonomy is used to classify objects within a collection, so information can be shared homogenously. SciColl maintains a registry of collections aimed at reducing this barrier, GRSciColl (Global Registry of Scientific Collections), a consolidated and comprehensive mass of information about scientific collections based from around the world. Globally, there have also been efforts to try and identify and create a database of 99% of all high-consequence viruses in wildlife hosts which are the most likely to carry the next pandemic – the Global Virome Project.

However, conflicting measures have developed at the same time, such as the Nagoya Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity, consolidating the rights of countries to have control of their own resources. Despite their importance, they contradict with SciColl’s aim of global sharing and international accessibility across collections. For example, in 2007, Indonesia decided to stop the sharing of virus samples with the WHO, with officials in Indonesia expressing their anger that viruses from their country might be used to make a commercial bird flu vaccine that they themselves would never be able to afford. But with most of the recent bird flu cases occurring in Indonesia, their viral samples are incredibly important in monitoring the evolution of bird flus that have the potential for global impact.

The future of scientific collections depends on international forums where people are talking about these issues, so that their full relevance can be recognized, and revered.

DiEuliis, D., Johnson, K., Morse, S. and Schindel, D. (2016). Opinion: Specimen collections should have a much bigger role in infectious disease research and response. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), pp.4-7.

Walsh, B. (2007). Indonesia's Bird Flu Showdown. TIME, [online] p.1. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1619229,00.html [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].

Thompson, H. (2014). Tracking the 2014 Ebola Outbreak Through Its Genes. Smithsonian.com, [online] p.1. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/tracking-2014-ebola-outbreak-through-its-genes-180952487/ [Accessed 31 Aug. 2017].

Spillover — Zika, Ebola & Beyond. (2016). [video] Directed by J. Barrat. Chevy Chase, MD: Tangled Bank Studios.


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