Thousands of US high school students will become ‘virus detectives’ as part of a government-sponsored program that hopes to help prevent the next pandemic.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.3million to a project run by Mount Sinai that involves teens finding and studying pathogens that could cause future outbreaks.
High schoolers from the five boroughs will collect bird feces from parks with the aim of analyzing flus and other pathogens spreading throughout the city’s avian population – but they will turn over any handling of live viruses to expert scientists.
However, infectious disease experts have warned the students could be at risk of infection with a novel pathogen if the correct protective measures are not followed meticulously.
Students are pictured above collecting bird feces as part of the 2022 leg of the program, which led to papers being published in academic journals
A press release from Mount Sinai said the expansion of its virus hunting program ‘engages high school students from communities historically underrepresented in science in the first large-scale citizen science effort to catalog and map avian influenza in the city’s wild birds.
‘The goal is to track emerging viruses and to prevent future outbreaks.’
As part of the program, students will scour parks in New York City to find bird feces and collect specimens for scientists to analyze in a lab for viruses.
The feces will be collected using a large cotton swab to brush parts of the sample into a collection tube, which is then sealed until it reaches the lab.
During collection trips, students will be required to wear a face mask and medical gloves to minimize their risk of exposure to pathogens.
Researchers said the students won’t be handling any live viruses – those will be extracted from the feces for lab analysis only by the scientists running the project.
There have been concerns about virus research after the Covid pandemic, which the FBI says was caused by a lab leak in Wuhan.
Pictured above are scientists analyzing samples in the lab to detect viruses
The bird feces are analyzed for the presence of viruses or any new and emerging pathogens
Collection will take place at ‘large scale’ events, the program said, and students are advised not to come into contact with dead or alive birds.
Also as part of the initiative, two dozen teens will participate as paid Junior Research Scientist Interns.
They will work with scientists to screen collected samples and assist with testing and sequencing samples, and will be trained in general virology by expert mentors at Mount Sinai.
While safety protocols have been outlined, Dr Leonard Mermel, an infectious diseases expert at Brown University in Rhode Island, warned there was still a risk someone could become infected by a collected sample.
He told DailyMail.com: ‘This may pose a risk if the students were to touch bird excrement and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
‘If they wear protective eyewear and a mask that should reduce the risk of auto inoculation.’
Auto inoculation is when a person transfers a disease from one part of their body to another, normally via touching the separate areas.
The latest NIH grant was awarded to Mount Sinai to expand its Virus Hunters program, which launched in New York City in September 2020.
Its aim was to get students involved in preparing for and preventing future pandemics.
The first stage of the program lasted two years.
The most recent grant is an expansion to the current program.
An egg farm in Ohio was the latest to detect the infection this week, and said it will now have to slaughter its 2.6million chickens.
The outbreak is being largely driven by the H5N1 variant of avian influenza, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) SAID the risk to the public is ‘low’.
But the agency added it is still possible for the virus to infect humans if someone is exposed to large amounts of it via droppings, bird bedding or from touching birds.
There have only ever been four recorded human infections of H5N1 in the United States, with the latest being in an inmate who worked on a poultry farm in Colorado in April 2022.
But there are concerns the H5N1 virus may be getting better at infecting humans as it has started to infect potential intermediate hosts, including minks and seals.
The CDC says the risk of someone getting infected with bird flu is ‘low.’ The above graphic explains how someone may get infected from a domestic chicken
The above graph shows human infections with H5N1 since 1997. There has been one case in the United States over this period, detected in April last year in a poultry farm worker
Announcing the program, Dr Florian Krammer, a vaccinologist at Mount Sinai, said: ‘Data generated from the pilot phase of the New York City Virus Hunters program has already resulted in peer-reviewed scientific publication and entries of the first two avian paramyxoviruses ever identified in the city’s pigeons.
‘This new, five-year grant will enable us to extend and broaden this citizen science initiative. We aim to recruit and support many more middle and high school students to participate at large-scale sampling events.
‘This allows us to expand the number of biospecimens we’re able to collect and analyze.’
The program will be run through BioBus, a science education nonprofit known for its mobile labs that bring science to students. The organization collaborates with more than 800 schools and community-based organizations that serve primarily diverse student populations, which are historically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Dr Christine Marizzi, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai, said: ‘Young people are smart and capable of making meaningful contributions to science when given the opportunity to engage in our scientific community.
‘Throughout the program, students build their own identity as scientists, gaining both a sense of belonging in the scientific community and valuable experience as they pursue further science education and careers.
‘We are thrilled and grateful to be able to expand our program through this new grant so that we can empower even more youth to help us participate in research that will make the Big Apple safer.’