Scientists Are Trying to Spot New Viruses Before They Cause Pandemics

“Had we had it set up in 2019, then when this virus hit the U.S., we would have had ready access to data that would have allowed us to see it circulating in New York City, for example, without doing anything different,” Dr. Mina said.

Although the observatory would not have been able to identify the new coronavirus, it would have revealed an unusually high number of infections from the coronavirus family, which includes those that cause common colds. It might also have shown that the new coronavirus was interacting with patients’ immune systems in unexpected ways, resulting in telltale markers in the blood. That would have been a signal to start genetic sequencing of patient samples, to identify the culprit, and might have provided grounds to shut down the city earlier, Dr. Mina said. (Similarly, serology would not be able to spot the emergency of a new virus variant, like the contagious coronavirus variants that were discovered in South Africa and England before spreading elsewhere. For that, researchers must rely on standard genomic sequencing of virus test samples.)

The observatory would require agreements with hospitals, blood banks and other sources of blood, as well as a system for acquiring consent from patients and donors. It also faces the problem of financing, noted Alex Greninger, a virologist at the University of Washington. Health insurance companies would be unlikely to foot the bill, since serology tests are usually not used by doctors to treat people.

Dr. Mina estimated that the observatory would cost about $100 million to get off the ground. He pointed out that, according to his calculations, the federal government has allocated more than twice that much to diagnostics company Ellume to produce enough rapid Covid tests to cover the American demand for only a handful of days. A pathogen observatory, he said, is like a weather forecasting system that draws on vast numbers of buoys and sensors around the globe, passively reporting on events where and when they arise. These systems have been funded by government grants and are widely valued.

The predictive power of serology is worth the investment, said Jessica Metcalf, an epidemiologist at Princeton and one of the observatory team members. A few years ago, she and her collaborators found in a smaller survey that immunity to measles was ominously low in Madagascar. Indeed, in 2018 an outbreak took hold, killing more than 10,000 children.

Now, the half-million plasma samples in Dr. Mina’s freezers, collected by the plasma donation company Octopharma from sites across the country last year, are starting to undergo serological tests focused on the new coronavirus, funded by a $2 million grant from Open Philanthropy. Testing had to wait for the researchers to set up a new robotic testing facility and process the samples, but now they are working through their first batches.

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