In a distressing example of bad timing, a U.S.-funded international virus surveillance program called PREDICT was forced to shut down last fall, mere months before COVID-19 began making headlines and grew to a pandemic that has massively impacted countries and communities around the world.
PREDICT had an impressive resume, and its loss was decried by public health officials worldwide. But some of its important mission lives on, under a different name, as the need for cross-border medical research is greater than ever.
What is PREDICT?
Launched in 2009, PREDICT was part of the Emerging Pandemic Threats project of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which was created by President John. F. Kennedy in 1961 to lead U.S. international development and humanitarian efforts.
PREDICT’s creation was inspired by the emergence of the H5N1 bird flu in 2005. Over ten years (two five-year federal funding cycles) PREDICT used its $207 million budget to collect over 140,000 biological samples and found over 1,000 new viruses. PREDICT also built or expanded dozens of medical research laboratories, mostly in developing countries, and trained about 5,000 people in 30 countries across Africa and Asia.
“PREDICT has made significant contributions to strengthening global surveillance and laboratory diagnostic capabilities for new and known viruses,” reads a USAID pamphlet. “PREDICT will improve global disease recognition and begin to develop strategies and policy recommendations to minimize pandemic risk.”
What happened to PREDICT?
The New York Times reported in October 2019 that PREDICT project funding was allowed to run out, “shutting down a surveillance program for dangerous animal viruses that someday may infect humans.”
The program was not actively targeted by the White House, the report says, but PREDICT was allowed to die by cautious administrators who were already under pressure to cut budgets.
Though it didn’t make major headlines at the time, the end of PREDICT became a political issue a few months later, escalating to prominent criticism in April, when the COVID-19 pandemic was exploding across the globe. PREDICT funding had recently ended for laboratories around the world, including the Wuhan lab that first identified SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The shut down also meant layoffs for dozens of scientists and analysts, including gene-sequencing teams that PREDICT had trained in Thailand and Nepal that were the first to detect COVID-19 in their countries.
USAID officials pointed out that PREDICT accounted for less than 20 percent of its global health security funding, and that following the expiration of funds in September, PREDICT was granted a zero-dollar six-month extension—through March 2020—to wrap up its work.
So what next?
While PREDICT is no more, USAID announced a new project in September 2020: STOP Spillover. STOP Spillover, with a $100 million budget, will “anticipate and address threats posed by the emerging zoonotic diseases that pose the greatest risk of jumping from animals to humans.”
“Considering more than 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases originate from animals, STOP Spillover is a critical next step in the evolution of USAID’s work to understand and address the risks posed by zoonotic diseases that can ‘spillover,’ or be transmitted, from animals to humans,” the agency said in its announcement.
It’s effectively the same mission as PREDICT, just under a different name.
“Yes, it’s like PREDICT, but it wasn’t the cancellation of PREDICT that inspired it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told the New York Times.
But PREDICT former director Dennis Carroll told the newspaper that USAID is “trying to create an optic that gets them out of the blowback for ending PREDICT.”
It’s possible PREDICT will be resurrected, meanwhile. In his COVID-19 plan, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to “re-launch and strengthen U.S. Agency for International Development’s pathogen-tracking program called PREDICT.”