BOZEMAN, Mt. — Nestled within Montana’s mountain ranges is one of the frontlines in the fight to prevent a future pandemic.
“It's just very unlucky when it happens, and it's the right pathogen that can then spread within humans and cause disease,” said Raina Plowright, an associate professor of epidemiology at Montana State University.
She and others at MSU are part of an international team of researchers taking a deep dive into viruses that can potentially jump from bats to humans.
Many scientists hypothesize that's how COVID-19 spread to humans.
“We call them spillover,” Plowright said.
This week, the National Institutes of Health took the unusual step of sending out a news release debunking conspiracy theories relating to the origins of COVID-19. One of those unproven theories includes the belief that the virus was created in a lab in China.
“The scientific evidence to date indicates that the virus is likely the result of viral evolution in nature, potentially jumping directly to humans or through an unidentified intermediary animal host,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said in the statement.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently awarded the MSU research project a $4 million grant – on top of a previous $10 million one – to try and figure out how bat viruses get into humans and what can be done to help prevent it.
“The pandemic has definitely brought the knowledge of what spillover is, what bat viruses are, very much to the forefront and I think has made it a little more easy to find funding for this type of research,” said Caylee Falvo, a MSU PhD student researcher.
The work is not easy, in part, because there are 1,400 hundred species of bats that can potentially cause a viral spillover to humans.
“It's incredibly frustrating,” said Dan Crowley, a MSU PhD student researcher. “So, we think we come up with a coherent story about how bats actually mount these immune responses, and then the story is completely turned on its head when we look at a new species.”
If they can figure it out, though, the information could help create a mathematical model that could forecast when and where a spillover event might happen and potentially prevent a pandemic from unfolding.
“I think understanding when higher risk situations are and communicating that to public health would probably be the best bet,” Falvo said.
One important piece of the puzzle, they say, is ongoing human impact on the environment.
“Building roads, clearing habitats, taking animals out of habitat for trade -- all of these factors bring us into closer association and increase the opportunity for spillover spread,” Plowright said. “It's like they're the canaries. We're seeing this as a signal of our relationship with nature changing, and we really should be paying attention to this.”