Tufts to lead 5-year research program on zoonotic disease spillover

The Cummings School is pictured. The Tufts Daily Archives

Tufts will lead a $100 million project called Strategies to Prevent Spillover (STOP Spillover). The five-year program was launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development and aims to address the impact of zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animals to humans. 

According to the U.S. Agency’s press release, the initiative is critical to understanding the effects of emerging diseases, more than 70% of which derive from animals. The findings of the program will also be used to implement the U.S. government’s Global Health Security Strategy.  

Deborah Kochevar, Dean Emerita at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, is the program director of STOP Spillover.

She outlined the goals of the initiative and its widespread impact.

Our program aims to enhance the capacity of the local, national, and regional institutions in countries across Africa and Asia to do three things: understand factors that contribute to the risk of zoonotic spillover, develop and implement measures to reduce early risk of spillover and spread, and quickly identify and respond to spillover events,” Kochevar wrote in an email to the Daily. 

Kochevar added that Tufts’ various schools and network can provide the necessary support to achieve the program’s goals.

Jeffrey Griffiths, associate professor of public health and medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, described a spillover event as the transfer of a typically viral, zoonotic disease, originally transmitted between animals, to the human population

Griffiths used COVID-19 as an example of this phenomenon. 

“All these zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, that spillover, many of them are viral diseases, not bacterial, and these viral diseases, essentially, are in animals,” Griffiths said. “If we knew how to prevent COVID-19 from spilling over, we would have [taken the necessary measures], right?” 

Kochevar echoed Griffiths’ statements by relating spillover events to COVID-19.

The importance of this work has been highlighted this year by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has its origins in zoonotic spillover. These spillover events are happening with increasing frequency,” she said. 

While Tufts will lead the program, a collection of experts in areas relating to wildlife and human disease will participate in the program, including the Broad Institute and the Africa One Health University Network, according to the press release.

Griffiths, who is a co-leader for surveillance and risk communication on the project, explained that the program is mostly focused on countries in which spillover events typically occur. He added that STOP Spillover is not a research study but rather a practical implementation of effective ways to prevent spillovers. 

According to Griffiths, the opportunity for extensive collaboration between Tufts and various different groups and experts, who also represent institutions like the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Glasgow and the University of Washington Institute for Risk Analysis, is a key characteristic of the program.

I think we’re going to have a much better sense of the interconnectedness between the spheres or these domains,” Griffiths said. 

He indicated that the program will help identify agents necessary to combat spillover events, such as teams of medical and veterinary specialists, as well as public health and environmental professionals.  

Griffiths detailed that program members will observe laboratories in countries particularly vulnerable to zoonotic spillovers and initiate a process of outcome mapping, which means they will gather experts and ask critical questions, such as what the possible underlying reasons for such spillovers may be. 

We’re going to do a deep dive into each of these countries [to do] a process of digging up what’s known already,” Griffiths said. 

Kochevar noted that the program launch meetings began the week of Oct. 5. The members of the project are in the process of preparing for what will be a five-year program. 

We are looking forward to this critically important work and are proud of Tufts’ lead role in it, which speaks volumes about the university’s expertise, the collaboration of its experts across schools, and its commitment to making the world a better, healthier, safer place,” she said.