U receives $55 million for pandemic planning

University researchers will travel to foreign countries to work to prevent animal-borne diseases that can pass to humans.

by Briana Bierschbach

The University of Minnesota will get a $55 million grant to help prevent worldwide pandemics by traveling to the countries where they often start. The United States Agency for International Development, an organization that provides aid to foreign countries, will spend $185 million over the next five years on the project to send researchers to developing countries to work to prevent and combat zoonotic pandemics, which start as animal-borne diseases that spread to humans. The University will get $55 million for its part âÄî one of the largest grants the school has ever received. Researchers from six departments, including the College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Public Health and the College of Education and Human Development could travel to foreign countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America and South America within months. The goal of the project, called RESPOND, is to prevent the next pandemic, so much of the work will be on diseases that do not exist yet. Diseases like avian influenza, SARS and the Ebola virus are all pandemics that began as diseases in animals. The work will involve teaching and building infrastructure in the countries that will help prevent the infection and spread of diseases. Tufts University in Medford, Mass., contacted the University to join the collaboration partly because it had a medical school and veterinary school in close proximity, said Mary Koppel, spokeswoman for the Academic Health Center. âÄúThere are very few institutions in the entire world where all of these disciplines are in the same university,âÄù she said. The project came out of an effort several years ago after the avian influenza surfaced, John Deen, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the project, said. Researchers found that their focus was too narrow and they were trying to deal with the disease too late. âÄúWe were closing the gate after the herd had already left,âÄù he said. âÄúThis was taking that experience with avian influenza and moving it a step back to actually prevent these diseases from occurring.âÄù Deen said the project is significant because scientists are learning that more and more human diseases arenâÄôt spontaneously created, but reside in animals first. âÄúItâÄôs always been important, we just havenâÄôt recognized it,âÄù he said. ItâÄôs also significant in a world that Deen said is getting smaller, both in human and animal interactions and also in cross-country trade.