Recognizing the many milestones it has reached in recent months, Strategies to Prevent Spillover, or STOP Spillover, a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by Tufts University, has announced that the interim leadership team that was put in place in March 2023 will take on a permanent role for the next two years of the project.
Hellen Amuguni, an associate professor in the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, is the new project director. The co-deputy directors are Felicia Nutter, director of the International Veterinary Medicine Program at Cummings School, and Jonathon Gass, an assistant professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the School of Medicine. (Amuguni and Nutter have secondary appointments at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Gass has a secondary appointment at Cummings School.)
“We are entering the fourth year of STOP Spillover on a high note, and our vision for the project remains clear,” says Amuguni. “Our focus is to build capacity and prepare countries to identify high-risk interfaces, control zoonotic diseases at their source before they become epidemics or pandemics, and develop interventions that reduce risks of exposure in human populations. We are privileged to work closely with amazing country teams and government counterparts as well as our consortium partners who bring expertise in wildlife health, infectious diseases, social and behavior change.”
At least 75 percent of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases of humans—including Ebola, Nipah virus, and zoonotic avian flu—have an animal origin. Chances are that when the next illness like COVID-19 emerges to threaten global health, it will originate in animals before it passes to humans, a process known as spillover. STOP Spillover aims to keep that tipping point from happening, or at least mitigate the dangerous effects.
“STOP Spillover has achieved so much in its third year thanks to these directors, who have been working with stakeholders in key countries in Africa and Asia to find ways to decrease the risks of harmful viral pathogens that jump—or spill over—from animals to humans,” said Caroline Genco, Tufts’ provost and senior vice president, who is also an immunologist. “Through this important work, our expert researchers and community partners demonstrate our shared commitment to One Health as a way of mitigating the significant global risk represented by zoonotic disease spillover.”
Leading a Global Consortium of Regional Partners
Begun in late 2020, STOP Spillover has so far partnered with colleagues in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Uganda, Viet Nam, and Sierra Leone to strengthen country capacities to reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases, or those that move between animals and humans. Teams of experts collaborate to develop country- and locality-specific research studies and interventions to reduce risks associated with selected viral zoonotic pathogens and to prevent their spread.
USAID administers the U.S. foreign assistance program providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries worldwide. For this project, Tufts leads a global consortium of partners with cross-disciplinary experience and regional knowledge.
From the outset, this consortium of experts in human, animal, and environmental health has been heavily focused on engagement, working with stakeholders at the national, regional, and local levels to reduce risks of exposure to and mitigate the spread of selected zoonotic viral pathogens, including coronaviruses, filoviruses (Ebola and Marburg viruses), avian influenza, and Lassa virus, among others.
Protecting Health and Providing Financial Stability
On the ground at the local level—in places such as wildlife farms in Dong Nai province, Vietnam, and wild animal meat markets in Kenema, Sierra Leone—community-led workshops have provided important data about the interactions humans have with wild and domestic animals in these settings, as well as the barriers they see to behavior changes that reduce spillover risk.
Gass, who recently visited wildlife farms in Viet Nam with its in-country team, said that STOP Spillover is filling major gaps in understanding the spillover ecosystem, which will improve conditions for both animals and humans.
Gass noted that wildlife farmers, government officials, and other stakeholders are very interested in working together to increase biosafety. “Farming practices are critical for the financial livelihoods of farmers and their families,” he said. “When outbreaks occur on farms and the animals either die or need to be culled, this has serious financial repercussions. STOP Spillover’s interventions will not only protect health but also provide increased financial stability via risk reduction.”
The program has formed local expert working groups to identify places where spillover is most likely to occur and to design risk-reduction interventions. In Liberia, for example, STOP Spillover is conducting research to understand Lassa virus distribution in rodent reservoir hosts both within what is considered the “Lassa belt” and beyond. Working with the Ministry of Health, National Public Health Lab, the Ministry of Agriculture, and local communities, teams are collecting and testing samples from the African soft-furred mouse and other rodents for the presence of Lassa virus RNA (an indication of infection) within and outside of the Lassa belt.
The documentation of the true distribution of Lassa virus in reservoir hosts will allow the country to better understand the risks to humans, develop more effective rodent control strategies, and inform future research, policy, and public health measures.
Technology and Space Redesign for Biosafety
At live bird markets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza is a concern, efforts are underway to develop a coordinated and sustainable platform for pathogen surveillance and data sharing. A mobile application has been developed, enabling the public to report sick and dead poultry as well as sudden febrile illness among market vendors. Moreover, the STOP Spillover team is working with public health experts and engineers to redesign market spaces so that biosafety is optimized, and consumer and vendor health protected.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Cambodia, and Liberia, teams have been trained to safely collect samples for surveillance of wastewater and liquid waste effluent, with potential testing for multiple zoonotic viruses. The aim is to create a surveillance system that can act as an “early warning system” for potential spillover events.
The program exemplifies the One Health concept: the interconnection of human, animal, and environmental health. “STOP Spillover continues the longstanding work of Tufts University, mainstreaming One Health approaches to address complex, globally important health problems, including zoonotic diseases,” said Felicia Nutter.
“Humans make choices every day that impact our health, the health of other animals, and the ecosystems and environments that we all share. Our current work empowers people to make more informed choices that safeguard our shared health,” said Nutter.
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