OUTBREAKSWhy Scientists Have a Hard Time Getting Money to Study the Root Causes of Outbreaks

By Caroline Chen

Published 24 May 2023

Government and nonprofit groups that award grants to scientists favor research that’s high tech and treatment oriented rather than studies that seek to understand why contagions leap from animals to people in the first place.

The outbreaks keep coming.

Mpox, the virus formerly known as monkeypox, last year crossed borders with unprecedented speed to infect nearly 90,000 people. In the past year, Ebola killed at least 55 in Uganda, and a related, equally deadly virus called Marburg emerged in two countries that have never seen it before. Now, scientists are worried that a dangerous bird flu that’s been jumping to mammals could mutate and spread among humans.

These viruses all came from wildlife. Understanding what conditions prime pathogens to leap from animals to people could help us prevent outbreaks. After COVID-19 showed the world the devastation a pandemic can bring, you’d think this type of research would be among the hottest areas of science, with funders lined up far and wide.

That’s not the case. As ProPublica has shown in a series of stories this year, global health authorities focus far more attention and money on containing outbreaks once they begin rather than preventing them from starting in the first place. This mindset has hindered scientists who study the complex dynamics that drive what’s known as spillover, the moment a pathogen leaps from one species to another.

Australian researcher Peggy Eby and her colleagues have shown that it is possible to predict when spillovers are going to happen by closely tracking bats that spread contagion and patiently observing changes that shape their world. This groundbreaking research on the often-fatal Hendra virus relied on decades of Eby’s field work, some of which she did without pay. Early on, one government funder told her that the project she proposed wasn’t a “sufficiently important contribution.” She and her colleagues had to cobble together a mishmash of different grants and keep impatient funders happy. Their work, published late last year in the journal Nature, highlights ways to intervene and potentially prevent outbreaks.

Scientists want to unlock similar mysteries involving other infectious diseases, but research like this is difficult to do and even more difficult to fund. Here are some of the obstacles that stand in the way: