By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing
The University of South Florida is one of three members of the Association of American Universities awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the transmission drivers of infectious diseases. Led by integrative biologist Andrew Kramer, the five-year study on the future of coronavirus in animals is supported by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service through a multiagency partnership with the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
“With the increased interactions between humans and wildlife, one of the important things about this work is that it reminds us that it’s not just us here,” Kramer said. “Our health can also make animals sick, and that might make us sicker. And that's an understudied aspect of the dynamics.”
With a $3 million grant, Kramer will examine how the virus spreads between wildlife and humans to create predictive models that can be used to protect human health from future variants and emerging diseases. This combined with research being conducted at the University of Florida and University of Minnesota on the evolution of pathogens and invasive species will provide a big-picture understanding of the transmission dynamics of infectious disease.
As a quantitative ecologist, Kramer will use computational methods to understand the population dynamics and spread of invasive species and emerging diseases in the northeastern forest community, an ecoregion that spans more than 30,000 miles across seven states from Maine to Pennsylvania.
To create the models, Kramer will collaborate with colleagues from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, IBM Research and Washington State University. Together, the team will analyze how the virus spreads among wildlife mammals, such as white-tailed deer, to advance the currently limited ability to predict zoonotic variants of coronavirus and their risk to humans.
“We want to provide a bigger picture of what’s actually driving the disease and its risk to both humans and animals,” Kramer said. “It appears certain the virus will persist in animals as long as it is prevalent in humans.”
By studying wildlife and how transmission may occur in natural populations, the team can improve assessments of risk to wildlife and humans, enabling better guidance on human and wildlife interactions. Kramer says the hope is that modeling these dynamics will be informative beyond coronavirus and help researchers understand multiple zoonotic pathogens, such as avian influenza and other emerging diseases.
The Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program grant was provided by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service through the joint National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Food and Agriculture with partnership from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.