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New study predicts global patterns of viral sharing among mammals

New work by University of Edinburgh PhD student and the EcoHealth Alliance has provided the first broadly applicable model to estimate patterns of viral sharing globally – for all mammal species and all known viruses.

Understanding patterns of viral infection among different host species is of increasing importance for human health and conservation, and there are relatively few methods available to predict them.

Predicting host reservoirs

During a three-month placement with the team at EcoHealth Alliance, Greg Albery carried out the new research as part of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. 

Previous work by EcoHealth Alliance examined the diversity of viruses across wild mammal species. 

Building on that work, the new results can be used to anticipate large-scale changes in viral sharing patterns in the future, as well as predicting reservoir hosts of important mammalian viruses.

The study used a network modelling approach and publicly available data to predict these patterns in a global context, including for the 80% of mammal species for which we currently have no known viral records.

The new model shows a surprisingly strong ability to predict reservoir hosts when validated using data from 250 viruses with more than one known host.

“We live in a rapidly changing world and we increasingly need open source, widely applicable models to help us understand viral sharing. By quantifying some of these fundamental processes, our work moves us a step towards anticipating and predicting how viruses will behave in the future.”

Dr Greg AlberyFormer PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, now a postdoctoral researcher at Georgetown University

Dr Kevin Olival, senior author on the paper says:

As exemplified by emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), we urgently need new tools to rapidly predict where viruses come from and what host species they can infect – especially in instances when viruses are first discovered and we have limited information.  These findings have enormous potential to better target disease surveillance resources to the species and locations where they are most needed.

This work was funded by EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization working at the intersection of animal, environmental and human health, and the UK National Environmental Research Council (NERC).

The paper is published in Nature Communications.

Read the manuscript

Related links

Greg Albery

School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

EcoHealth Alliance

National Environmental Research Council