Research News

Prepare for next pandemic by preserving animal specimens in natural history collections, scientists say

Researchers encourage collaboration with natural history museums to permanently archive host specimens

It's been more than a year since the first cases were identified in China, yet the exact origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remain a mystery. Though strong evidence suggests that the responsible coronavirus originated in bats, how and when it crossed from wildlife into humans is unknown.

In a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study published in the journal mBio, an international team of biologists says this lack of clarity has exposed a glaring weakness in the current approach to pandemic surveillance and response worldwide.

The emergence of infectious diseases attributed to novel pathogens that "spill over" from animal populations into humans has increased in recent decades. 

In most recent studies of animal-borne pathogens with the potential to spread to humans, known as zoonotic pathogens, physical specimens of suspected wildlife hosts were not preserved. The practice of collecting and archiving specimens believed to harbor a virus, bacterium or parasite that's under investigation is called host vouchering.

"Vouchered specimens should be considered the gold standard in host-pathogen studies and a key part of pandemic preparedness," said Cody Thompson, co-lead author of the paper and mammal collections manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

"But host vouchering has effectively been nonexistent in most recent zoonotic pathogen studies, and the lack of this essential information has limited our ability to respond to the current COVID-19 pandemic," said Thompson.

To fill this knowledge gap, Thompson and his co-authors urge researchers who conduct host-pathogen studies to adopt vouchering practices and to collaborate with natural history museums to permanently archive host specimens, along with tissue and microbiological samples.