Q&A: the role of natural history museums in pandemic surveillance


Mmore than a year has passed since the first recorded cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and scientists still don’t know which animal it has spread in human populations from, and they might never find out. If researchers had archived more hospitality vouchers, which are preserved specimens or tissues of species carrying pathogens, investigators might have had a better chance of quickly identifying the animal origins of SARS-CoV. -2, says a group of scientists from mBio January 12.

The authors call on scientists in the field who study infectious diseases in animals to partner with museums to store specimens where possible, rather than remaining isolated in their separate activities.

See “What species transmit COVID-19 to humans?” We are still not sure.

The scientist spoke with coauthors Cody Thompson, head of mammal collections and researcher at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan, and Kendra Phelps, senior scientist at EcoHealth Alliance who studies the persistence and transmission of pathogens in hosts bats, to learn more about the role natural history museums can play in helping researchers monitor pandemics.

The scientist: Explain to me exactly what you mean by good.

Kendra Phelps (left) and Cody Thompson (right)


Cody Thompson: Voucher is the process of providing a specimen or archival sample. With regard to animal samples, this would be an animal that could have been euthanized during the sampling process for, for example, viral surveillance or accidental death. Or it may be the samples associated with this surveillance process (e.g. blood, tissue or wing bumps) that result in the release of the animal, but there is still material available that can be stored in such a way as to be able to be used. by other scientists.

ST: And why would this be a useful tool in the context of COVID-19?

Kendra Phelps: We are facing another coronavirus causing a global health emergency, the third in two decades. We know from past epidemics that [these coronaviruses] probably from bats, so it would be useful to have a series of species archived or recorded in a museum to determine what the original reservoir host is, and then go from there to understand how it entered the home. ‘man.

The two fields of museology and disease surveillance have not been well integrated. You have virologists, researchers, and environmentalists who are interested in viruses that could potentially be pathogenic to humans, but they ignore hosts, which is ultimately critical to preventing pandemics or mitigating the spread of a pandemic. If we know the host of the reservoir, it can give us a lot of information. Especially with new technologies over time, we can look at different host-pathogen dynamics. Taxonomy is constantly changing, so it is essential to keep a permanent record in a museum accessible to the research community to understand pandemics, especially those of zoonotic origin.

See “Where do coronaviruses come from”

ST: How would you recommend strengthening collaboration between museum curators and researchers?

KP: Knowing that the two fields exist. I come from the background of ecology. I have experience in museums and now conduct surveillance for bat diseases and coronaviruses, in particular. I work with people who have a similar interest in understanding the catalog of potentially pathogenic viruses that exist and in mitigating the spread to humans, but I think little thought has been given to the host. . . .

It’s just a lack of crosstalk and collaboration between [museum curators and researchers]. And not for a bad reason, it’s just that people are in their circles. This is one thing the pandemic has taught us: we cannot function in a single search bubble, we must expand to a larger one. [global health] comprehension.

See “Why bats make such good viral hosts”

CT: Museums, we see ourselves as the libraries of life. But too often there is this perception that our focus is purely on systematics and taxonomy and does not extend beyond that. Of course, that’s not true, and the extent of the type of things museum scientists do is undoubtedly increasing as technology develops and increases our ability to do different things with the specimens that have been collected. or that will be collected in the future. . . .

If we want to be the libraries of life, we have to think bigger and think about those levels of the very little things that we don’t usually think of as living in a museum cabinet: looking at tissue samples and microbiological samples as part. of our mission to expand our capabilities to support this vast work done by biologists and microbiologists.

ST: You talk about a specific case in 1993 in which the voucher helped solve the mystery of a viral epidemic. Can you tell me a little more about this?

CT: This particular story focuses on hantaviruses in the region across the United States. Hantaviruses have spread to more northern latitudes: They are now found in much of the United States, but at the time, they were relatively unknown to the [US]. This epidemic led to the hospitalization and ultimately the death of several people. [and] was really a mystery as to its origin.

It is important, when you start a study, that you start a collaboration with a natural history museum so that it is prepared for what you are collecting and can ensure that it can house these specimens.

—Kendra Phelps, Alliance EcoSanté

Public health agencies have reacted in a big way at the state and federal level, and ultimately the research returned to the collections of the Museum of Southwestern Biology. Through the efforts of previous researchers who had collected specimens in the area and archived not only the specimens but also the corresponding tissue samples for these animals, they were able to go back and screen the tissues to determine if there was or not a virus that existed in these animals.

They were able to determine that was indeed the case. They linked hantavirus to one of the most common mouse species found in North America, which truly became a revolutionary change in the way museums could be operated, but also this combination of ecology and field biology with the framework of public health. It really changed the perception of how these entities can work together.

ST: Wow, that’s a whole story. How do you see this type of collaboration in practice?

KP: I do the actual disease surveillance in the field. I have mainly focused on bats for the past 20 years. How do we fit that in, we can continue to sample wildlife but also sacrifice a few individuals of each species that we sample and make sure they are put into a natural history museum that can archive them for the long haul. It doesn’t always have to be targeted lethal sampling, but any wildlife research can lead to accidental fatalities in traps. Just taking advantage of that opportunistic specimen there, rather than throwing it away and throwing it away as a biohazard, have it ready as a museum voucher specimen.

Also, it is important when you start a study that you start a collaboration with a natural history museum so that it is prepared for what you are collecting and can ensure that it can house these specimens.

CT: There is also a large amount of occasional surveillance that occurs at the level of local and national health services. For example, rabies submissions are a very common thing in most states in the United States, and they are often reviewed at the state level. This potentially involves thousands of bats, carnivores, and other animals that may have been considered to be in close contact with individuals. As we know, rabies is relatively low in populations, and eventually many of these animals are cremated. It’s a missed opportunity that could be an easy link between museum collections and the public health community. This could be beneficial for screening for other pathogens in the future, but also to help address issues such as the biodiversity crisis and climate change in which we are all involved at some level.

CW Thompson et al., “Preserve a Reference Specimen! The critical need to integrate natural history collections into studies of infectious diseases ”, mBio, doi: 10.1128 / mBio.02698-20, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.


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