Milken Institute School of Public Health Receives $2.5 Million Grant to Study the Virus that Causes Deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome

WASHINGTON, DC (Dec. 5, 2018)—The Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University (GW) today announced receiving a grant of $2.5 million to study the natural ecology of the virus that causes MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) – including the social, behavioral and economic factors that could set the stage for the next big outbreak of this illness.

MERS is a severe respiratory illness that first surfaced in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus that causes MERS spreads through the air or through close contact with an infected person or animal. Health officials now know MERS kills about four out of ten people who develop illness—thus making it potentially very deadly. And since 2012 the virus has surfaced in over 20 countries, including in the United States.

Yet despite the global public health threat posed by MERS much about the disease and the virus remains a mystery.

Amira Roess, PhD, MPH, the principal investigator of the project and an assistant professor of global health at Milken Institute SPH, will be leading an international, multi-disciplinary team to find out more about the disease itself, the animals that carry the virus and a variety of complex factors that may help trigger the deadly spread of MERS.

“Ultimately, we hope to develop a sophisticated mathematical model that could be used to predict the next outbreak of MERS or other coronaviruses,” said Roess. “Such a model might also be used to help identify and stop an emerging outbreak in its tracks.”

In order to study this virus and disease, Roess first had to assemble a team with the necessary cross-disciplinary skills. The project brings together epidemiologists, veterinarians, wildlife biologists, anthropologists and others, not just from GW, but from six institutions all over the world.

The team knew that previous research had suggested that camels in the Gulf and East Africa carry the coronavirus that causes MERS.

To find out more about the virus and the transmission of the disease, Roess and her team plan to conduct a longitudinal study in Ethiopia, a country in the Horn of Africa, where camels are bred, traded and used to produce milk and other products.

The team hopes to study camels and other types of wildlife in the area in order to zero in on the virus. In addition, they aim to pinpoint the kinds of behavior or interactions between humans and animals that can increase the risk of the illness breaking out and starting to spread.

The spillover of a highly pathogenic virus from animals to a human population is also known to be affected by variables in the climate, such as rainfall and temperature. So Roess and her colleagues will also collect and analyze environmental factors that might create ideal conditions for MERS.

Researchers know that there are many similarities between MERS outbreaks and those of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS and even Ebola. Yet the complicated interactions between humans and the animals that spread such disease, as well as many other factors, have never been incorporated into a model that could be used to predict—and stave off--the next big outbreak.

“This is the first study to integrate social, cultural, behavioral, biologic and climatic factors of zoonotic disease emergence and transmission at this scale,” she said. “Ideally, this model could be used to study other livestock or zoonotic diseases that are poorly understood and in the end could lead to interventions that might save lives.”

The National Science Foundation funded the four-year study.