Covid-19 | ZooCov, a new project to prevent coronavirus transmission from wildlife to humans

Science at work 15 April 2020
The current Covid-19 crisis has shone the spotlight on wildlife trade and wild meat consumption. That consumption is growing, particularly in Southeast Asia, which means that pathogen transmission from wild animals to humans is potentially an increasing threat to public health. An international project led by CIRAD, with funding from the ANR, will set out to document the betacoronaviruses circulating through wild meat trade chains in Cambodia and develop a flexible, integrated system for early detection of virus transmission between wildlife and humans. This should help to prevent future zoonotic disease pandemics.
Wild animals on sale at a market in Cambodia © Institut Pasteur du Cambodge
Wild animals on sale at a market in Cambodia © Institut Pasteur du Cambodge

Wild animals on sale at a market in Cambodia © Institut Pasteur du Cambodge

More than 70% of zoonotic emerging infectious disease events are of wildlife origin. Bats in particular are well-known natural hosts for a variety of zoonotic diseases. Recent examples include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERSCoV), Ebola, and of course Covid-19.

Wild meat consumption remains common in Southeast Asia. The practice therefore raises a major safety issue: that of the potential spillover (transmission) of pathogens from animals to humans, which can challenge already weak public health systems. As the One Health paradigm recognizes, "the health of humans, animals and ecosystems is interconnected".

To tackle the issue, a project led by CIRAD in Cambodia – ZooCov – is due to begin shortly. It will benefit from funding under the ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche) Flash call to support French scientific communities working on Covid-19*.

Four work packages to build a new surveillance system

The project comprises four interconnected work packages (WPs):

  • the first to identify and analyse the main wildlife trade chains in two pilot areas of Cambodia;
  • the second for an in-depth analysis of wild meat consumption practices and perceptions;
  • the third to (i) document and quantify the presence and diversity of betacoronaviruses in wild meat, and (ii) identify predictors of animal infection and human exposure;
  • and the last to develop a methodological framework to incorporate early detection of viral spillover events into a wildlife health surveillance system (WHSS) using the results of the other three WPs.

Such a system could subsequently be rolled out to other countries and continents, including Africa, which is also a major hot spot for zoonotic diseases.

A range of projects relating to Covid-19

The ZooCov project will cooperate with another project selected by this ANR Flash call. The DisCoVer project is led by the University of Caen and IRD and also involves CIRAD. It will focus on the natural history of SARS-CoV-2 reservoirs in Laos and Thailand. Moreover, in the short and medium term, researchers are preparing further responses to coming Covid-19 calls, notably in the fields of health ecology and surveillance in Southeast Asia.

*The Flash call is a device that allows the selection and funding of proposals within a short period of time without departing from the principles of peer review.

ZooCov project partners

  • CIRAD (France)
  • IRD (France)
  • Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (Cambodia)
  • Hong Kong University
  • Wildlife Conservation Society (Southeast Asia Regional Office)
  • Fauna and Flora International