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Mammals Host At Least 320,000 New and Unidentified Viruses

Update Date: Sep 03, 2013 09:18 AM EDT

When viruses strike the human population, one of the first steps that researchers take in their studies is to map out the origins of the virus. In order to get an idea about the potential threats of a new virus, researchers must understand how the virus transferred from an animal source or sources to humans. In a new study, instead of focusing on a specific virus that is currently circulating, researchers decided to estimate the number of viruses that could be circulating in mammals.

For this study, researchers from the United States and Bangladesh plan on identifying all of the viruses that circulate in mammals. So far, the researchers have estimated that there are roughly 320,000 viruses that have yet to be discovered existing in mammals. The team believes that proper identification of all of them will benefit future research and potentially prevent any pandemics from starting.

"What we're really talking about is defining the full range of diversity of viruses within mammals, and our intent is that as we get more information we will be able to understand the principles that underlie determinants of risks," professor Ian Lipkin, the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the University of Columbia explained according to BBC News. "Despite what looks like an extraordinary expense to pursue this kind of work, it really pales in comparison with what one might learn that could lead to very rapid recognition and intervention that could come to the fore with a pandemic risk. The idea is to develop an early warning system."

The project is estimated to cost over $6 billion, a figure that the researchers believe is not nearly as expensive as it would be for any country that has to deal with a future pandemic. The researchers also believe that this type of study will take 10 years to complete. For this study, the team focused on the flying fox, which is a part of the bat species. The researchers collected 1,897 samples in order to study how many pathogens existed in these animals. From this group of data, the researchers identified 60 different types of viruses. The majority of these viruses were unknown until this study. Based on this finding, the team was able to estimate the total number of viruses that could exist in all mammals.

"Obviously we cannot survey every animal on the planet, but we can try and map as best as we can using a concept referred to as hotspots," Lipkin said. "We look at areas where we know, based on previous experience, there is a high likelihood that new infectious agents will emerge or will pose considerable threat to human health."

The study was published in mBio

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