Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Dates: Oct 2008-Sep 2013
Summary: RNA viruses are a highly diverse group of pathogens, some of which have crossed the species barrier from animals to humans ('zoonoses'); for example, human immunodeficiency virus type 1 is thought to have originate from a related virus in chimpanzees, while the SARS virus is closely related to viruses found in civet cats and bats. There are increasing concerns about the emergence of new zoonotic infections, and yet our understanding of the determinants of jumping host is still poor. The overarching, long-term aim of this proposal is to help us understand why some viruses can jump hosts, while others do not, and to allow us to compare different viruses not only on their sequence similarity but also on their evolutionary similarity.
As a model system for understanding the origin of HIV, I am involved in an international collaborative study to investigate the dynamics of human-primate conflict in Western Uganda. My role in the project is to characterise the different types of contact that the local villagers have with local primate species, which harbour a variety of different retroviruses and haemorrhagic viruses, as well as the contacts individuals have with each other. I will explore the implications of this contact structure for the transmission of different types of infectious agents, validating the model using syndromic data.
In many cases, when a new viral outbreak is identified, it is long after the start of the epidemic. In such a scenario, genetic sequence data of the virus can be informative about the timing and source of the outbreak, as well as the dynamics of transmission preceding the identification of the outbreak. I am building computational models of the transmission of infectious diseases that will allow the early dynamics of infection to be captured as accurately as possible. For example, if we were to see two related viruses in humans and an animal species, what is the chance that there may be a third species involved?