Questions and Answers: The Role of Natural History Museums in Monitoring Pandemics

M.It has been more than a year since the first recorded cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and scientists still aren’t sure which animal it got into the human population from and they may never find out. If researchers had archived more host vouchers, which are preserved specimens or tissues from species that carry pathogens, researchers might have had a better chance of quickly determining the animal origin of SARS-CoV-2, argues one group of scientists in mBio on January 12th.

The authors urge field researchers studying infectious diseases in animals to work with museums to store samples whenever possible, rather than remain isolated in their separate activities.

See “Which species transmit COVID-19 to humans? We are still not sure. “

The scientist spoke to coauthors Cody Thompson, the mammalian collections manager and researcher at the University of Michigan Zoological Museum, and Kendra Phelps, a senior scientist with the EcoHealth Alliance who studies the persistence and transmission of pathogens in bat hosts to learn more about the role that natural history museums can help assist researchers with pandemic surveillance.

The scientist: Take me through exactly what you mean by voucher.

Kendra Phelps (left) and Cody Thompson (right)


Cody Thompson: An archive sample or sample is created during vouchering. In relation to animal specimens, this would be an animal that may have been euthanized when the sample was taken, for example for virus surveillance or accidental death. Or it could be the samples associated with this monitoring process – blood, tissue, or wing flaps, for example – that lead to the release of the animal, but there is still material available that can be stored in a way that can be used from other scientists.

TS: And why should this be a useful tool in the context of COVID-19?

Kendra Phelps: We are facing another coronavirus causing a global health emergency – the third in two decades. We know that from past outbreaks [these coronaviruses] They probably came from bats. Hence, it would be helpful to archive or document a number of species in a museum to determine what the original host of the reservoir is and from there how it got into humans.

The two areas of museum science and disease surveillance are not well integrated. They have virologists, researchers, and disease ecologists interested in what viruses could potentially be pathogenic to humans, but then they don’t keep a record of the hosts, which is ultimately crucial in preventing pandemics or mitigating the spread of a pandemic. Knowing the reservoir host can give us a lot of information. In particular, with new technologies over time, we can study different host-pathogen dynamics. Taxonomy is constantly changing, so in understanding pandemics, especially those of zoonotic origin, it is vital that a permanent record is kept in a museum open to the research community.

See “Where Coronaviruses Come From”

TS: How would you recommend strengthening collaboration between museum curators and researchers?

KP: Be aware that the two fields exist. I come from ecology. I have museum experience and now I specifically do bat and coronavirus surveillance. I work with people who have the same interest in understanding the catalog of potentially pathogenic viruses and mitigating their spread to humans, but I think the host has given little thought. . . .

It’s just a lack of crosstalk and collaboration between [museum curators and researchers]. And for no bad reason – it’s just people in their circles. That’s one thing the pandemic taught us: we can’t operate in a single research bubble – we need to expand to a broader level [global health] Understand.

See “Why Bats Are Such Good Viral Hosts”

CT: We see museums as the libraries of life. But too often there is the perception that our focus is exclusively on systematics and taxonomy and does not go beyond them. Of course, that’s not true, and the breadth of the sorts of things museum scholars do definitely grows as technology expands and our ability to do various things with the collected specimens that is or will be collected in the future increases. . . .

If we want to be the libraries of life, we have to think broader and think on these levels about the very little things that we normally don’t consider living in a museum cabinet: viewing tissue samples and microbiological specimens as part of our mission, our ability to support them extensive work by biologists and microbiologists.

TS: You speak of a specific case in 1993 where coupons helped solve the mystery of a virus outbreak. Can you tell me a little more about it

CT: This particular story focuses on hantaviruses in the Four Corners region of the United States. Hantaviruses have spread to northern latitudes: they are found throughout much of the United States today, but were relatively unknown to the United States at the time [US]. This outbreak resulted in hospitalization and the eventual death of several people [and] was really a mystery where it came from.

When initiating a study, it is important that you begin working with a natural history museum so that they are prepared for what you are collecting and so that they can make sure they can hold those specimens.

– Kendra Phelps, EcoHealth Alliance

There was a huge response from state and federal health officials, and ultimately research came back to the collections at the Museum of Southwestern Biology. The efforts of previous researchers who collected samples from the area and archived not only the samples but also the corresponding tissue samples for these animals allowed them to go back and examine tissues to see if there was a virus in the virus or not Animals.

You could see that this was actually the case. They linked the hantavirus to one of the most common species of mice in North America, leading to a breakthrough change in the way museums could be used, but also in the combination of field ecology and field biology with the public health environment. It really changed the perception of how these entities can work together.

TS: Wow, that’s the story. How do you envision this kind of cooperation in practice?

KP: I do the actual monitoring of the disease on site. I’ve mainly focused on bats for the past 20 years. How we can integrate this, we can continue to sample wildlife, but also some individuals of every species that we sample, sacrifice and make sure they are kept in a natural history museum that can long-term archive them. It doesn’t always have to be targeted fatal sampling, but any investigation of wildlife can result in accidental deaths from traps. Instead of wasting it and disposing of it as biohazard, get this opportunistic specimen right there and prepare it as a sample museum voucher.

Also, when initiating a study, it is important that you begin working with a natural history museum so they can be prepared for what you are collecting and make sure they can hold those specimens.

CT: There is also a large amount of occasional surveillance that takes place at the local and state health department levels. For example, rabies applications are very common in most US states, and these are often reviewed at the state level. There are potentially thousands of bats, carnivores, and other animals believed to be in close contact with individuals. As we know, rabies is relatively low in populations and, ultimately, many of these animals are cremated. This is a missed opportunity that could provide a simple link between museum collections and public health. This could be beneficial for screening for other pathogens in the future, but it could also help address things like the biodiversity crisis and climate change, which we are all concerned with at some level.

CW Thompson et al., “Keep a specimen copy! The critical need to integrate natural history collections into studies on infectious diseases “, mBio, doi: 10.1128 / mBio.02698-20, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.

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