UC Berkeley researchers receive grant to study mosquito-borne viruses

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Eva Harris and Josefina Coloma, researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, were awarded a $7.78 million grant that will be distributed over the course of five years and will be used to launch an arboviral disease research center.

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The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, granted nearly $8 million to UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers Eva Harris and Josefina Coloma to study mosquito-borne viruses and pandemic preparedness in Asia and the Americas.

With the funds, which will be distributed over the next five years, Harris and Coloma will establish the American and Asian Centers for Arbovirus Research and Enhanced Surveillance, or A2CARES, on campus. Arboviruses are a class of viruses that are spread by mosquitoes and other arthropods — Zika, dengue and chikungunya are all caused by mosquito-borne arboviruses and will be studied further by Harris and Coloma, according to Harris.

A2CARES will be part of the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, or CREID, consortium that includes several institutions in the United States and one in France, according to the CREID website. CREID will have research centers around the world, including Ecuador, Sri Lanka and Congo.

“It’s really exciting because it’s part of a larger consortium,” Harris said. “This is going to be wonderful for the world in helping to respond to emerging diseases.”

A2CARES’ research focus will be the chikungunya virus, dengue virus, Zika virus and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the CREID website.

Dengue virus, which can cause a debilitating disease, is a “huge problem” for 3 to 3.5 billion people, Harris said.

The mosquitoes that spread the Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses are Aedes aegypti, according to Harris. She noted that Aedes aegypti are “incredibly” adapted to human ecology because they breed in clean water and in people’s homes, especially where there is poor waste management. Aedes aegypti only need small amounts of clean water to breed, such as in shoes or bottle caps that might fill with water, Harris said.

Although tropical and subtropical urban areas are especially affected by these arboviruses, Harris said there is a growing understanding of arbovirus prevalence in rural areas.

“We’re at a cusp of understanding better how to make better tests and how to make those cheaply and accessibly,” Harris said. “We hope to have infrastructure and capacity in place to respond to any new, emerging threat.”

Harris said the A2CARES group is the culmination of 30 years of research between investigators.

A2CARES will also bring together some of the world’s top arbovirus researchers, Harris said. She added that these researchers will focus on studying arbovirus genetic relatedness and molecular diagnostics.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time,” said Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, in a NIAID press release. “The CREID network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses.”

Eric Rogers is a research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eric_rogers_dc.