KARACHI - A new grant that seeks to spur vital global research on infectious diseases and pandemics has been awarded to the University of Washington (UW) and its partners, including the Aga Khan University, by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, CREID.

The US $8.75 million grant spread over five years will help support UW and collaborators at Rockefeller University in New York City and institutions in Brazil, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa and Taiwan to develop the United World for Antiviral Research Network, UWARN, according to a news release here on Thursday.

Such large-scale global collaborations are becoming all the more necessary to combat diseases, known and unknown. Just two years ago, in 2018, the World Health Organization had identified a priority list of viruses for which no vaccines and drugs were available.

It included “Disease X”, a stand-in for pathogens yet unknown that could cause a serious international epidemic – COVID-19 is exactly the type of threat that Disease X was meant to represent.

UWARN will help in the race to identify potential pandemic viruses, develop the urgently needed diagnostic tools and drugs that work against a range of pathogens, and expand understanding of the body’s immune responses to viruses which is key to vaccine development.

Dr Wesley C. Van Voorhis, co-director of UW’s Center for Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Disease, CERID, and one of the initiative’s principal investigators, spoke of how exciting it was to establish UWARN. “We are particularly excited to be collaborating with Aga Khan University with its excellent research personnel and infrastructure, plus its outstanding connections in Africa through its medical school in Kenya,” Dr Voohis said.

“Pandemics are becoming an increasingly frequent threat to public health in the developing and developing world,” said Professor Asad Ali, associate dean for research at Aga Khan University. “We need to deepen our understanding of emerging infectious diseases in order to prevent the emergence of new viruses from becoming pandemics that threaten our way of life.”

UWARN researchers will be looking to advance innovative approaches to laboratory diagnosis, including identifying reagents for antibody tests that detect antibodies in the blood in order to diagnose an active or previous infection. Another approach would be through ‘designed proteins’ that release light when antibodies are present in the blood, using technology developed by UW Medicine Institute for Protein Design.

The group will also work to improve understanding of how viruses manipulate the human immune system, facilitating development of better blood biomarkers to predict the severity of diseases as well as drugs that could improve outcomes for patients with viral infections.

Several AKU faculty will be involved: Najeeha Talat Iqbal, from the paediatrics and child health and biological and biomedical sciences is the principal investigator for Pakistan. Dr Farah Qamar and Dr Ali Faisal from paediatrics and child health, and Professor Erum Khan from pathology and laboratory medicine are co-investigators on the project.

UWARN will serve as one of ten centers in the CREID Network which has multidisciplinary teams of investigators spread over 30 countries. The CREID network will be coordinated by the Research Triangle Institute, a large non-profit research organisation with regional and project offices in over 75 countries, and Duke University known for its cutting-edge medical research and home to the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.