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A 10-year, $1.2B plan to map global viruses launches, seeks investors

The Global Virome Project, a 10-year plan to map more than a million unknown viruses, has shed light on its first research steps and its estimated $1.2 billion cost.

The project has found funding for an initial administrative hub, and fieldwork will begin in China and Thailand in 2018, according to an editorial by the project's leaders in the latest issue of Science.

It did not disclose its funding support in the magazine but said the international, collaborative nature of the project "should help leverage funding from diverse international donors," including government agencies focused on national virome projects or on international development projects as well as "private-sector philanthropic donors focused on technology and big science."

The project's leaders, which include Dennis Carroll of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Global Health Security and Development Unit, estimate that there are roughly 1.67 million undiscovered viral species lying in wait in birds and mammals, with somewhere between 631,000 and 827,000 of those potentially able to jump to humans.

The Global Virome Project, or GVP, estimates that the substantial majority of these unknown viruses could be discovered in 10 years on a $1.2 billion budget. The last, rarest viruses might remain undiscovered or require a significant ramp-up in costs to gather enough samples: reaching every target could be a $7 billion venture, researchers said.

The GVP is also developing "a transparent and equitable strategy" to share the data and viral samples they do gather, researchers said, which could lead to a vaccine or drug development for a wide range of targets.

Some groundwork has been laid for the latest project. GVP researchers noted that for nearly a decade, USAID has conducted a $170 million study to predict and pre-empt potential pandemic agents, racking up 1,000 new discoveries.

But USAID's project, focusing on capacity-building, training and support, differs significantly from GVP's goal of large-scale sampling and viral discovery, Carroll and the other researchers said.

Researchers are modeling the project off of the success of the Human Genome Project, an international venture started in the late 1980s to map the whole human genome, which stores vital DNA information.

As the project picked up interest among government and commercial players, technology also rose to meet its needs and significant innovations in genome sequencing brought the project in ahead of the timeline and well under expected budgets. At the start of the project, the cost of sequencing an entire human genome was roughly $100 million; within 10 years that cost fell to about $10,000 a genome.

Likewise, researchers said, "The GVP will likely accelerate development of pathogen discovery technology, diagnostic tests, and science-based mitigation strategies, which may also provide unexpected benefits."