MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection," where today we are trekking around global D.C. Our next stop is the Smithsonian's National Zoo, which is a pretty international place, if you think about it, given that it houses hundreds of species from across the Earth. And the person in charge of keeping all those exotic animals healthy is the zoo's chief veterinarian, Dr. Suzan Murray. But veterinarians like Murray don't just play a role in keeping the world's animals healthy. More and more, their key in keeping the world's humans healthy, as well. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson headed to the zoo to talk with Dr. Murray about identifying the deadly diseases we can contract from wildlife.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
We've had avian bird flu, we've had swine flu, these are all things that have some connection to animals. How does it affect how you go about your daily research and work? And I understand you've done a lot of traveling, as well.
DR. SUZAN MURRAY
Yes, exactly. I have done a lot of traveling for the zoo. And it's been wonderful because it gives us an opportunity to share what we know about our animals here in the collection with wildlife and vice versa. What we learn with wildlife we come back and apply that to animals here at the zoo. but there's also a much broader issue, which is the next emerging pandemic threat.
DR. SUZAN MURRAY
And the last two decades we've seen a lot more of things that affect humans, also, animals and humans on a much broader scale. And about 70 percent of the emerging infectious diseases that affect humans, like you said, swine flu, Ebola, monkey pox, are zoonotic in nature, meaning it comes from the animal population. And what we've discovered over the last two decades is that there hasn't been enough information, enough background surveillance of what's going on in the wildlife population. And if we really want to stop the next emerging pandemic threat before it hits and kills a lot of people, we need to have some more information.
DR. SUZAN MURRAY
So Smithsonian is part of this wonderful grant from USAID. It's part of an emerging pandemic threat program. So the goal of the EPT program, the Emerging Pandemics Threat program, and ours in particular, PREDICT, is to help get enough information to predict and mitigate the next pandemic threat before it happens.
Is it hard to identify, once a virus or a disease has mutated and made it over to humans, how do you trace it back to where it came from, even with samples? Is that difficult?
Well, the PREDICT team works very closely with CDC. So the CDC would do the human aspect and work with the hospitals and the families and do research there and take care of the people. We'll look at animals in the area and we'll look at some of our programs and find out, were there 20 dead bats? Were there 10 dead monkeys? Have we already anesthetized animals and collected those samples or should we go about collecting those samples now? And then we've already set up, in the first few years of the program, laboratories. And we know that ahead of time. So laboratories are waiting for the samples and we've got excellent partners who do pathogen discovery.
So they're able to do various types of advanced testing, PCR and next generation PCR. So the system is set up so this can get done very rapidly, first in batches to determine what type of virus do we have, then more specifically, is it novel and how do we treat it. One of our programs, led by Pete Marry (sp?) here at Smithsonian, is an excellent program in Uganda whereby wildlife deaths are being recorded on cell phone in real time. So rangers are trained as they go about their day to patrol to say, one dead baboon, two dead hippos, a dead stork. And then it gets reported in real time.
So at any time you can look on the screen and have a real time assay or a look at what's actually died today, in the last week, the last month so we can determine if there's an outbreak and then respond even more quickly. And that is actually turning out to be a real key and has helped play a role in some of the Ebola outbreaks, the hemorrhagic fevers in Uganda.
In terms of your work with pandemics, do you feel like because of all the research that we've done, we're in a better place? Or do you feel like, because of our encroachment on wildlife habitat, that we're in a more dangerous place when it comes to disease?
What a great question. And it's a little bit of both, right? That because of the increased anthropogenic changes and the increased interaction between people and animals, and our global economy, whereby people can get on an airplane in Hong Kong and then get to London and then D.C. within 24 hours, the factors that make it ripe for virus mutation and translation into other species are really very high. So we are at increased risk, but fortunately, because of forward thinking and avocation by programs like this USAID program, the surveillance has really steeped up a lot and we've managed to identify over 200 new viruses.
That's actually really huge because it's that much more that's in the data bank, that's that much more we can be aware of. The answer to your question is yes and yes. Yes, we are at a much greater risk, but we're also much better prepared.
That was Dr. Suzan Murray, the chief veterinarian of the National Zoo, speaking with environment reporter Jonathan Wilson.
For more information about Dr. Murray's work and the Smithsonian's role in the emerging pandemic threat program, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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