Research

False colour electron micrograph of MERS coronavirus, first detected in humans in 2012Emerging infectious diseases are still serious impending threats to global health, demonstrated by outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, and H5N1 influenza among others over the last twenty years. I use an array of models to ask empirical questions about emerging diseases and how pathogens jump from one host to another. These models bring together pathogens, hosts and the wider ecological context – supporting the idea that these are fundamentally connected as ‘One Health’. Ultimately, my research aims to highlight where the risks of future emerging pathogens lie and contribute to a preventive public health strategy.

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Dynamics of emergence of human RNA viruses

Human RNA viruses are highly diverse in their origins, transmission dynamics and evolutionary relationship with human as hosts. Along with other Epigroup members, I continually maintain data on all known and newly recognised human viruses and their traits. I use this data to investigate dynamics of viral emergence in two key areas. Firstly, I am investigating whether ecological traits of viruses can predict their virulence within humans using machine learning methods. Secondly, I am using Markov models to determine whether certain types of viruses are more likely to require viral evolution to adapt to humans, or whether they may jump from animal hosts to humans already being ‘pre-adapted’.

 

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Influence of host ecology on human viruses

The majority of our pathogens are shared with animals, particularly viruses. I am especially interested in how wild and domestic animal hosts influence the behaviour and evolution of human viruses. Using comparative analyses, I am working with data from the EcoHealth Alliance to further understanding of the relationships between ability of viruses to transmit between and cause disease within humans, and aspects of their host ecology: a) diversity of host ranges, b) phylogenetic relatedness between humans and animal hosts, and c) hosts with specific life history strategies.

 

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Global drivers of emerging infectious diseases

Emerging infectious diseases have been linked to the increasingly rapid changes to landscapes and the increased pressure of global human activity. Working with the Biodiversity Modelling Research Group at UCL, I have used spatial models to identify global hotspots of zoonotic bat virus risk, and how this risk is shaped by viral diversity and human activity such as population expansion and bushmeat hunting. I am also using comparative analyses to investigate how globalisation drives virus sharing between humans and wildlife that are threatened or endangered by human activity.

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