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Jack Payne: Preventing the next coronavirus in Florida

Public health risks must be addressed through publicly funded research.

Jack Payne

The search is on in Florida for the next zoonotic disease like coronavirus. There may be no place quite like Florida for the potential for disease to jump from animal to human.

It’s a sportsmen’s paradise, a state with more than a million cows, heifers, and bulls, and a gateway for invasive species. New construction encroaching on wildlife habitat can increase the chances of people coming into contact with disease-carrying animals.

Florida’s mosquitoes can do more than annoy. They can infect. Think back four years ago when Zika prompted health officials to issue travel warnings for South Florida.

KC Jeong and Samantha Wisely began their Florida-focused work on zoonotic diseases long before the coronavirus outbreak. Jeong has found potential superbugs in cattle. Wisely has discovered seven new viruses in deer in the past four years.

A disease doesn’t have to be fatal to humans to be damaging. At its height, Zika was a drag on the state’s largest industry, tourism. The state’s second-largest industry, agriculture, depends upon public trust in the safety of our food.

The deer farms in 60 of our 67 counties are a billion-dollar-a-year business. The health of the herd and maintaining it without threat to humans is of huge consequence in a state where management of our wild spaces is largely funded by hunters and recreational fishers.

KC Jeong & Samantha Wisely

Jeong and Wisely’s work is prevention science that aims to better understand how zoonotic disease spreads. They scout for bacteria in the intestines of live cows and viruses in dead deer in search of disease.

Jeong is a microbiologist who challenges the notion that the use of antibiotics is the only reason for rising antimicrobial resistance in our cattle. His research, funded in large part by the United States Department of Agriculture, has discovered potential superbugs in cattle that are being raised antibiotic-free. It has him searching for the source of superbugs in wild pigs, birds, water, soil, and grass.

We need to know more about this to protect ourselves and our animals. Jeong worries that a ban on antibiotics may create a false sense of security. It may not offer much protection if it turns out that superbugs are not evolving in animals’ guts but instead coming into cattle with their food and water and through contact with wildlife.

Wisely is a wildlife ecologist who focuses on deer. She leads the Cervidae Health Research Initiative (CHeRI). She studies the spread of fatal diseases among deer by dispatching field technicians to deer farms to perform necropsies.

What Wisely learns may have future applications if a deer disease makes the leap to humans. Her work shows that we likely still have much to do just to identify the agents that can carry disease. CHeRI has documented four previously unknown deer viruses and three others that were previously not found in deer.

Public health risks must be addressed through publicly funded research. With so much at stake, we need public scientists as the early detection corps whose prevention work can stave off future quarantines, panic, public health threats, and economic losses.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, where Jeong and Wisely work, is particularly well suited to collaborate on this as an agriculture and natural resources organization with a wildlife department. Jeong, of the UF/IFAS Department of Animal Science, has a lab in the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and Wisely’s lab is in the UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

Together they’re looking at the zoonotic potential of feral swine. These animals carry the pathogen that causes brucellosis, the most frequent wildlife disease that infects humans. If they also carry disease that can spread to domestic pigs or to cattle, that could be an economic catastrophe. In addition to coronavirus, China is managing an outbreak of African swine fever that has killed millions of animals and caused it to turn to costly imports of pork.

Ultimately, Jeong and Wisely are trying to learn how to reduce the chances that the next coronavirus-like outbreak occurs in Florida. Without their work, we may not only be wasting our prevention dollar but in our complacency fail to be on the lookout for the bacteria or the mode of transmission that poses a greater threat to human health.

We could be saving lives. At the very least, we’re saving livelihoods.

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Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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