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Mammal Virus Tally Seen Speeding Global Contagion Control

Scientists Estimate All Mammal Viruses to Contain Next Epidemic
An Indian flying fox is photographed in Bangladesh in this 2009 handout photograph. Photographer: Jonathan Epstein/EcoHealth Alliance via Bloomberg

The mammalian world may harbor at least 320,000 viruses, scientists estimated in new research that aims to speed the control of new infectious killers.

The tally, based on data collected from flying foxes in Bangladesh applied to the 5,486 known species of mammal, will help create a more systematic way of managing outbreaks, particularly those spreading from animals to humans, scientists from Columbia University and the EcoHealth Alliance wrote in a paper published today in the journal mBio.

Zooneses, or diseases that transmit from vertebrate animals to humans, account for almost 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases including HIV, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, the scientists said.

“This is a real breakthrough,” said Peter Daszak, a study author and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a biodiversity conservation organization. “Instead of just sitting here and waiting for them to emerge and kill us, we want to be ahead of the curve and fight them before they even kill the first ever person.”

Money spent researching disease threats would represent a fraction of the cost of fighting a contagion such as SARS, whose economic impact is estimated at $16 billion, the scientists wrote in the study.

The cost of uncovering all viruses in mammals is about $6.3 billion, and expenses could be cut to $1.4 billion by limiting discovery to 85 percent of estimated viral diversity, they said, based on their extrapolation of results.

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