Georgetown Global Health Center Launches First Open-Access Wildlife Disease Database

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Karen Teber

WASHINGTON (November 15, 2023) — Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Global Health Science and Security (GHSS) today announces the launch of a first-of-its-kind wildlife disease database — a system for collecting records of viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, etc. — designed to support an early warning system for potential viral emergence. The Pathogen Harmonized Observatory, or PHAROS, is open to the global community and free to access.

Scientists in GHSS’ Verena program, a collaborative institute comprising a global team of scientists, designed PHAROS to advance research and education around viral emergence — the process of viruses jumping from animals to humans. Verena co-founder and director Colin Carlson, PhD, says most platforms designed to track diseases in wild animals are very limited and are developed only in response to a major outbreak, such as birds dying off suddenly due to avian flu.

“Our goal is to build a data sharing system that lets us eventually predict pandemics like the weather,” Carlson says. “When we collect data on wildlife viruses, it gets published in journals and then lost forever, because it isn’t ever standardized or compiled. After COVID, there’s no excuse to keep working that way.”

Carlson says scientists from around the world are invited to share and manage their data in PHAROS, and that the platform is designed to allow attribution to its contributors and easy citation for users.

To complement the collection and organization of the data, the team collaborated with GHSS health intelligence researchers to develop a searchable database that can be queried.

“Easy access to these data is the first step to making ‘one health’ a data-driven field — and then making better policies that prevent outbreaks,” says Georgetown professor Ellie Graeden, PhD, an expert in creating and developing quantitative approaches for global-scale decision making.

The initial launch of PHAROS will include a small number of datasets already shared by about a dozen beta testers, many of whom are on the Verena team, Carlson says.

“Open science is the core of our program,” Carlson explains. “We’ll spend the next few months recruiting new users, and will be focusing our efforts on problems like the avian flu panzootic, where we think our database can do the most good.”

Pharos is made possible with support to Verena from the National Science Foundation, and with support to GHSS from Open Philanthropy.