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When 'Spillover' Can Be A Good Thing

By David Wolking

On Thursday evening in Morogoro, Tanzania Ruth Maganga climbs a stairway that connects two stacked shipping containers that have been converted in a biosaftey level 2 molecular lab. She starts up her laptop and logs into Skype. 

Meanwhile, 300 km west in Iringa, Zikankuba Sijali and Zena Babu gather in the back room of a one-story tin-roofed house that has been turned into field lab, liquid nitrogen generating plant and office building. They begin looking through their online contacts.

It is 8 a.m. in California. My computer is ringing.

“Habari Bwana Davidi, Liz?”

“Safi Bwana, Zika.”

“Mambo, Ruth?”

“Poa, David. Hi, Brett.”

It’s raining loudly in Tanzania on tin roofs, the call quality is poor and Zika and Ruth’s Skype icons fade in an out on my MacBook screen.  

“Hello, hi, hello Zika? Zika?”

“Yes, yes sir I am here.”

This is the job. This is the reality of global, collaborative research.  Every day, sometimes twice a day, our computers or smartphones ring around the world and we connect, sometimes poorly, and we learn and grow together.

There’s a tendency to view foreign aid as a transfer of resources from the haves to the have nots. But that one-way trajectory misses a critical feedback loop in the development of global human capacity. Like pathogens, knowledge can spill over when there is an interface, and it moves in multiple directions. An outbreak of collective intelligence could be the real and lasting success of this project.


Tracey Goldstein and Sulochana Manandhar discuss lab optimization for PREDICT viral family diagnostics with the Center for Molecular Dynamics - Nepal team in Kathmandu. 

While UC Davis and PREDICT partners work to detect and prevent the spillover of pathogens of pandemic potential that can move between wildlife and people, another spillover, networking and knowledge sharing, is happening all the time, and this spillover could be the real and lasting success of the project.

There is a tendency to view foreign aid and donor-funded programs as a transfer or shift of resources, talent, and expertise from the haves to the have nots. Projects like PREDICT do allocate resources and focus talent in areas like Central Africa where outbreaks frequently emerge and there is little capacity to respond, manage, or control them. But the one-way trajectory of development assistance misses a critical feedback loop in the development of global human capacity.

Through PREDICT, we are improving global capacity to detect and prevent spillover of pathogens at the human:animal interface.  Our default setting is to envision a scenario much like in the film Contagion, where a virus or other pathogen is transmitted from an animal to people.  But as we’ve demonstrated through One Health Institute research with Gorilla Doctors in Uganda and Rwanda, spillover is not a one-way street; human viruses also infect animals like the human metapneumovirus, detected in critically endangered mountain gorilla populations.  

Spillover can be defined quite simply as movement from one vessel to another. Like pathogens, knowledge spills over quite easily when there is an interface. Through projects like PREDICT, USAID has amplified contact at the human:human interface. This promotes knowledge sharing and capacity strengthening. As it does with pathogens, that knowledge transfer moves in multiple directions. 


Prof. Kazwala and Dr. Mfinanga - Tanzanian Godfathers of One Health

I also work with the One Health Institute’s Health for Animals and Livelihood Improvement (HALI) project in Tanzania. HALI started in 2006 as a collaborative research and capacity partnership between Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) and the UC Davis One Health Institute. The project was designed as a systems approach to investigate pathogen transmission between people, animals and the environment in the Ruaha ecosystem. 

In short, HALI is a One Health project, a proof-of-concept exercise to demonstrate that a One Health approach can solve problems. HALI was and remains an innovative approach, but it was not new. In Tanzania Professor Kazwala, a SUA veterinarian and HALI co-founder had already been working with Dr. Sayoki Mfinanga, a medical doctor from Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research (now a HALI Co-Investigator), to study zoonotic diseases in humans and animal populations collaboratively — call it One Health in action. 

This experience provided the foundation for HALI’s approach, and Professor Kazwala’s knowledge, along with others at Sokoine like Zika, directly influence the design, strategy, implementation and evaluation of our projects.

A recent critique of the development community by Bill Easterly in his Tyranny of Experts, emphasizes the over reliance on technical solutions to global problems like poverty. In One Health, we have a lot of experts and no shortage of problems. 

Through PREDICT we are tackling a major problem in global health: improved capacity to detect and prevent emerging infectious diseases. But we often misdiagnose expertise. Experts are not always designated by degree and title, by their publication record or ability to self promote. Some experts are right in front of you, calling into your laptop from Nepal at 9 p.m. 

Success in One Health requires a diversity of expertise and a collaborative environment that encourages that expertise to be shared. While we work to prevent one type of spillover, we are promoting the spread of another.   

David Wolking is a Global Operations Officer for the One Health Institute who is working with international programs like HALI and PREDICT to strengthen local capacity for global health research.

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