Prepare for next pandemic by preserving animal specimens: Museum scientists

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on January 13, 2021

Host vouchering is the practice of preserving specimens believed to harbor a virus, bacteria or parasite that’s under investigation

An international team of 15 biologists and museum scientists stated that the host vouchering should be practiced from now in order to prepare for the next pandemic beforehand.

Host vouchering is the practice of preserving specimens believed to harbor a virus, bacteria or parasite that’s under investigation.

In the study, published in the journal mBio, the biologists say that the lack of clarity has exposed a glaring weakness in the current approach to pandemic surveillance and response worldwide.

“Vouchered specimens should be considered the gold standard in host-pathogen studies and a key part of pandemic preparedness,” said Cody Thompson, co-lead author and mammal collections manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

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Zoonotic pathogen studies

“But host vouchering has effectively been nonexistent in most recent zoonotic pathogen studies, and the lack of this essential information has limited our ability to respond to the current Covid-19 pandemic,” said Thompson, who is also an assistant research scientist in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Thompson and the team urge researchers who conduct host-pathogen studies to adopt vouchering practices. They suggested that the scientists should also collaborate with natural history museums to permanently archive host specimens, along with their tissue and microbiological samples.

The authors include experts in mammalogy, bat biology, microbiology, natural history, ornithology, bioinformatics, parasitology and host-pathogen biology. Most of them have ties to natural history museums.

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“In essence, vouchering provides both an offensive mechanism for pandemic prevention--by expanding the surveillance of wildlife hosts and associated pathogens,” said study co-lead author Kendra Phelps of EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit that works to prevent pandemics and promote wildlife conservation.

Understanding pandemic

“This problem becomes especially critical in navigating novel viral zoonoses, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, where it is necessary for the scientific community to swiftly and efficiently leverage its collective knowledge and resources to effectively understand and contain the spread of novel pathogens at a time when lockdown restrictions hamper on-going sampling efforts.”

The emergence of infectious diseases attributed to novel pathogens that “spill over” from animal populations into humans has increased in recent decades.

During spillover events, vouchered specimens in museum collections and biorepositories can help disease sleuths quickly track a pathogen to its source in the wild.

Vouchered host specimens can help answer fundamental biological, ecological, and evolutionary questions about host-pathogen dynamics.

At the same time, archiving host specimens in natural history collections provide access to a “vast, largely untapped biodiversity infrastructure” within museums, the authors noted.

“We need to think of natural history collections as resources for preventing future pandemics, with the potential to promote powerful interdisciplinary and historical approaches to studying emerging zoonotic pathogens,” said Thompson.

Published on January 13, 2021

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