A USAID spokesman said the funding was halted following a reevaluation of the “relative risks and impact” of various government-backed efforts to prevent future pandemics.
The program, called DEEP VZN — short for the Discovery and Exploration of Emerging Pathogen-Viral Zoonoses program — was led by researchers from Washington State University with the aim of collecting nearly half a million biological specimens from wildlife, and from those, isolating at least 12,000 novel viruses for further study. Set to run through 2026, it was the latest in a series of federally backed research projects that sought to identity previously unknown or exotic viruses that might some day spark a new pandemic in humans.
The decision to shutter the program was first reported by the BMJ, a publication of the British Medical Association.
While it terminates DEEP VZN, USAID is expanding other initiatives intended to facilitate a rapid response to emerging diseases in more than 50 countries around the world, including fostering the development of new vaccines, the agency spokesman said. “The covid-19 pandemic has led USAID and the U.S. government as a whole to assess priorities and approach to pandemic preparedness,” the spokesperson said.
Supporters of DEEP VZN had said they hoped to be able to provide an early warning about wildlife pathogens that could someday make the jump to human beings. Scientists believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that sparked the coronavirus pandemic evolved from similar strains endemic in bats in southern China and Southeast Asia.
But opponents argue that the research was as likely to trigger an outbreak as it was to prevent one. The search for exotic viruses creates opportunities for accidental infections and transmission, as scientists encounter wild animals in the field and then seek to isolate and grow previously unidentified viruses back in the laboratory for testing.
DEEP VZN (pronounced “deep vision”), launched in 2021, was the successor to earlier U.S.-backed virus-hunting programs such as STOP Spillover and PREDICT, which also focused on the search for exotic viruses. Such practices have come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Washington Post reported in April that USAID officials had ordered DEEP VZN’s managers to halt all virus-collection efforts pending an extensive safety review. The Post reported that the program had become controversial within the Biden administration. Some of the White House’s science advisers argued that the mass collection of viruses was a poor tool for forecasting future pandemics and that the risks outweighed any gains in scientific knowledge.
Thomas Kawula, one of two Washington State University leads for the project, said he was disappointed with the decision but intended to continue working on programs to strengthen preparedness for new disease outbreaks.
“Our commitment to global pandemic preparedness remains,” Kawula said. “There is a need for the U.S. to take a lead in investing in disease surveillance and national security resulting from proactive research in global health.”