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OU Researchers Awarded NASA Grant to Study Emerging Disease Threats, Including the New Coronavirus

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February 6, 2020

OU Researchers Awarded NASA Grant to Study Emerging Disease Threats, Including the New Coronavirus

NORMAN, OKLA. – An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Oklahoma has been awarded a $730,000 grant from NASA to better understand emerging infectious disease threats in the region of Central Asia, including the 2019 novel coronavirus that is spreading from China.

The research team will study coronavirus and other disease outbreaks that are “zoonotic” – meaning they evolved in part as a result of increased contact between humans and animals. The NASA grant will support the development of new measures that can be used to help identify existing population vulnerabilities in the region and to forecast outbreak scenarios that may be developing on the horizon.

The research grant, part of NASA’s Land Use Land Change Program, pairs the expertise of remote sensing specialists under the direction of principal investigator Kirsten de Beurs, chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at OU, with socioeconomic and health analysis by social scientists at OU, including co-investigators Katherine Hirschfeld of the Department of Anthropology and Daniel Hicks of the Department of Economics.

OU’s researchers will help train undergraduate and graduate students in the interdisciplinary research methods necessary to study emerging risk zones. Through collaboration and information sharing with local researchers and stakeholders across Central Asia, this new research will enhance the region’s own capacity to identify and respond to developing health threats.

“The goal of our research is to determine if we can better predict the economic, public health and environmental risks of large-scale development initiatives, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, by carefully measuring and monitoring environmental and urban land cover and land use change in the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor,” de Beurs said.

The new coronavirus is the latest of several recent infectious zoonotic disease outbreaks that have threatened populations in Asia and around the globe. These include the 2002-2003 epidemic of SARS, sporadic outbreaks of avian flu and the 2014 epidemic of Ebola fever that began in West Africa. Zoonotic diseases are likely to emerge in settings where human activity encroaches on animal habitats. Outbreaks are even more likely in urban settings where essential health infrastructure has not kept up with population growth.

Central Asia, a roughly 4 million-square-mile tract of land that is home to approximately 70 million people, is vulnerable to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases for a number of reasons. First, many former Soviet republics face a lack of adequate modern health care systems and a shortage of public funding for health, limiting the ability of researchers to identify and respond to potential outbreaks. Second, massive new infrastructure investments, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative, are enhancing road and rail linkages between Central Asian countries and China. These trade and travel networks are important for economic development, but they also generate significant population health risks. Third, rapid rates of urbanization in the region cause human populations to come into greater contact with wildlife and domestic animals in agricultural transition zones. These new interactions also increase the risks of zoonotic disease outbreaks, like the 2019 novel coronavirus.