Cody Thompson, mammal collections manager and assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, opens a drawer containing moose bones collected on Michigan's Isle Royale. Image credit: Scott Soderberg, University of Michigan Photography.

It’s been more than a year since the first cases were identified in China, yet the exact origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain a mystery. Though strong evidence suggests that the responsible coronavirus originated in bats, how and when it crossed from wildlife into humans is unknown.

In a study published online Jan.12, 2021 in the journal mBio, an international team of 15 biologists say this lack of clarity has exposed a glaring weakness in the current approach to pandemic surveillance and response worldwide.

In most recent studies of animal-borne pathogens with the potential to spread to humans, known as zoonotic pathogens, physical specimens of suspected wildlife hosts were not preserved. The practice of collecting and archiving specimens believed to harbor a virus, bacteria or parasite that’s under investigation is called host vouchering.

“Vouchered specimens should be considered the gold standard in host-pathogen studies and a key part of pandemic preparedness,” said Cody Thompson, co-lead author of the mBio paper and mammal collections manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

Drawer of bat specimens in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology collection. Image credit: Dale Austin, University of Michigan.

To fill this knowledge gap, Thompson and his co-authors urge researchers who conduct host-pathogen studies to adopt vouchering practices and to collaborate with natural history museums to permanently archive host specimens, along with their tissue and microbiological samples.

The authors of the mBio article include experts in mammalogy, bat biology, microbiology, natural history, ornithology, bioinformatics, parasitology and host-pathogen biology. Most of them have ties to natural history museums.

“In essence, vouchering provides both an offensive mechanism for pandemic prevention—by expanding the surveillance of wildlife hosts and associated pathogens—and a defensive mechanism by providing a verifiable archive for baseline comparisons,” said study co-lead author Kendra Phelps of EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit that works to prevent pandemics and promote wildlife conservation.

“This problem becomes especially critical in navigating novel viral zoonoses, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where it is necessary for the scientific community to swiftly and efficiently leverage its collective knowledge and resources to effectively understand and contain the spread of novel pathogens at a time when lockdown restrictions hamper on-going sampling efforts.”

The emergence of infectious diseases attributed to novel pathogens that “spill over” from animal populations into humans has increased in recent decades.

Read full Michigan News press release

The paper is receiving widespread media attention including in The Washington Post and in The Scientist