Ashoka University launches long-term study on zoonotic disease outbreaks

Amid rising cases of zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 and Monkeypox, a team of researchers at Ashoka University has launched a long-term research project to study cohabitation of animals and humans, and pathogen sharing among species.

With its first field station coming up in Western Himalayas, the research is looking to set up more field stations in regions like Western Ghats, Aravallis and southern India, backed by funding from the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at Ashoka University.

According to Balaji Chattopadhyay, Assistant Professor, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University, while enormous resources have been spent over the years on curative measures for such infections, little is known about the ecology, biology, and evolution of such outbreaks. Moreover, the current pandemic has exposed these and highlights the need for a systematic approach to understand the complex dynamics of zoonotic spillovers.

“Ashoka University, through its Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability (3CS), has initiated a long-term study on the impact of climate change on small mammal communities and the risks of spillover infections. Climate change plays a crucial role in the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases, posing continual threats to human health, and creating economic challenges. It has created a favourable environment for spillover infections, and a vast majority of emerging infectious diseases are transmitted from wildlife to humans (zoonotic diseases),” said Chattopadhyay while adding that outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like Monkeypox, SARS-Cov2 highlight the need for a systemic approach to understand all complex dynamics of zoonotic spillovers

The research team also includes assistant professors of biology Imroze Khan, Shivani Krishna and Bittu Kaveri Rajaraman, along with faculty fellow Kritika M Garg, a Ramalingaswami Fellow from the Department of Biology and senior project associate Dailu Pilot Dovih.

The researchers will be using next generation sequencing tech to sequence genomes of pathogens, instead of working on live viruses or pathogens.

“We look to study coerced cohabitation of animals and are looking into reservoirs, species, changing habitats, sharing of pathogens as well as kinds of pathogens shared. We are not virologists who will study live viruses but track gradients of habitats and how wildlife evolves and how that is affecting pathogen turnover and pathogen movement between various hosts and reservoirs. Such a study may go on for 5, 10 or even 15 years,” Chattopadhyay added.

The first leg of the long term research will span over three years, backed by a seed funding of roughly over Rs one crore by 3CS, to understand the diversity of potential pathogens circulating in the wild in multiple well-established sites in different landscapes and under changing climatic conditions. Further, the study looks to understand the risks and whether or not such pathogens are of public health concern.

While the team is looking to set up a field station in Western Himalayas, going forward, more such stations could come in other similar biodiversity rich regions like the Western Ghats or Eastern Ghats, North East, Aravallis, or southern India.

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