Leveraging natural history biorepositories as a global, decentralized, pathogen surveillance network

PLoS Pathog. 2021 Jun 3;17(6):e1009583. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1009583. eCollection 2021 Jun.


The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic reveals a major gap in global biosecurity infrastructure: a lack of publicly available biological samples representative across space, time, and taxonomic diversity. The shortfall, in this case for vertebrates, prevents accurate and rapid identification and monitoring of emerging pathogens and their reservoir host(s) and precludes extended investigation of ecological, evolutionary, and environmental associations that lead to human infection or spillover. Natural history museum biorepositories form the backbone of a critically needed, decentralized, global network for zoonotic pathogen surveillance, yet this infrastructure remains marginally developed, underutilized, underfunded, and disconnected from public health initiatives. Proactive detection and mitigation for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) requires expanded biodiversity infrastructure and training (particularly in biodiverse and lower income countries) and new communication pipelines that connect biorepositories and biomedical communities. To this end, we highlight a novel adaptation of Project ECHO's virtual community of practice model: Museums and Emerging Pathogens in the Americas (MEPA). MEPA is a virtual network aimed at fostering communication, coordination, and collaborative problem-solving among pathogen researchers, public health officials, and biorepositories in the Americas. MEPA now acts as a model of effective international, interdisciplinary collaboration that can and should be replicated in other biodiversity hotspots. We encourage deposition of wildlife specimens and associated data with public biorepositories, regardless of original collection purpose, and urge biorepositories to embrace new specimen sources, types, and uses to maximize strategic growth and utility for EID research. Taxonomically, geographically, and temporally deep biorepository archives serve as the foundation of a proactive and increasingly predictive approach to zoonotic spillover, risk assessment, and threat mitigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Wild
  • Biodiversity
  • Biological Specimen Banks / organization & administration*
  • Biological Specimen Banks / standards
  • Biological Specimen Banks / supply & distribution
  • Biological Specimen Banks / trends
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • Communicable Disease Control* / methods
  • Communicable Disease Control* / organization & administration
  • Communicable Disease Control* / standards
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / microbiology
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / prevention & control*
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / virology
  • Community Networks / organization & administration*
  • Community Networks / standards
  • Community Networks / supply & distribution
  • Community Networks / trends
  • Disaster Planning / methods
  • Disaster Planning / organization & administration
  • Disaster Planning / standards
  • Geography
  • Global Health / standards
  • Global Health / trends
  • Humans
  • Medical Countermeasures
  • Pandemics / prevention & control
  • Public Health
  • Public Health Surveillance / methods*
  • Risk Assessment
  • SARS-CoV-2 / physiology
  • Zoonoses / epidemiology
  • Zoonoses / prevention & control

Grant support

This work was funded by ANID-FONDECYT 1171280 (GD) and 1180366 (FTP), NSF 2033482 (JAC), and US Fulbright Commission (JAC). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.