Bridging the gap: Using reservoir ecology and human serosurveys to estimate Lassa virus spillover in West Africa

Read the full article See related articles


Forecasting the risk of pathogen spillover from reservoir populations of wild or domestic animals is essential for the effective deployment of interventions such as wildlife vaccination or culling. Due to the sporadic nature of spillover events and limited availability of data, developing and validating robust, spatially explicit, predictions is challenging. Recent efforts have begun to make progress in this direction by capitalizing on machine learning methodologies. An important weakness of existing approaches, however, is that they generally rely on combining human and reservoir infection data during the training process and thus conflate risk attributable to the prevalence of the pathogen in the reservoir population with the risk attributed to the realized rate of spillover into the human population. Because effective planning of interventions requires that these components of risk be disentangled, we developed a multi-layer machine learning framework that separates these processes. Our approach begins by training models to predict the geographic range of the primary reservoir and the subset of this range in which the pathogen occurs. The spillover risk predicted by the product of these reservoir specific models is then fit to data on realized patterns of historical spillover into the human population. The result is a geographically specific spillover risk forecast that can be easily decomposed and used to guide effective intervention. Applying our method to Lassa virus, a zoonotic pathogen that regularly spills over into the human population across West Africa, results in a model that explains a modest but statistically significant portion of geographic variation in historical patterns of spillover. When combined with a mechanistic mathematical model of infection dynamics, our spillover risk model predicts that 897,700 humans are infected by Lassa virus each year across West Africa, with Nigeria accounting for more than half of these human infections.

Author Summary

The 2019 emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is a grim reminder of the threat animal-borne pathogens pose to human health. Even prior to SARS-CoV-2, the spillover of pathogens from animal reservoirs was a persistent problem, with pathogens such as Ebola, Nipah, and Lassa regularly but unpredictably causing outbreaks. Machine-learning models that anticipate when and where pathogen transmission from animals to humans is likely to occur would help guide surveillance efforts and preemptive countermeasures like information campaigns or vaccination programs. We develop a novel machine learning framework that uses datasets describing the distribution of a virus within its host and the range of its animal host, along with data on spatial patterns of human immunity, to infer rates of animal-to-human transmission across a region. By training the model on data from the animal host alone, our framework allows rigorous validation of spillover predictions using human data. We apply our framework to Lassa fever, a viral disease of West Africa that is spread to humans by rodents, and use the predictions to update estimates of Lassa virus infections in humans. Our results suggest that Nigeria is most at risk for the emergence of Lassa virus, and should be prioritized for outbreak-surveillance.

Article activity feed