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Project Group 3: Epidemiology of Highly Pathogenic Microorganisms

Fabian Leendertz
Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer

Transmission cycles of zoonotic pathogens among wildlife, domestic animals and humans in a rural setting in tropical Africa. Source: RKI


Among the pathogens causing infectious diseases in humans, those originating from animals (so-called zoonoses) are exceptionally important in terms of their number and pathogenicity.They can represent a serious threat to public health. Our group combines different approaches to investigate the sources and reservoirs of such zoonotic microorganisms, mechanisms of their transmission to humans and their evolutionary pathways.

We hereby focus mainly on sub-Saharan Africa, which bears a disproportionately high burden of morbidity and mortality due to infectious diseases and is a hotspot for zoonotic disease emergence. Ever growing globalisation leads to fast regional but also international spread of pathogens, as demonstrated by HIV, SARS-Corona virus, Ebolavirus and H5N1. Therefore, understanding mechanisms of disease emergence in high risk areas is of direct relevance for global public health.

I Zoonotic pathogens in tropical wildlife and livestock

Group Lead: Dr. Fabian Leendertz

We examine the presence of various zoonotic pathogens as well as potential risk factors associated with transmission in humans and animals in several sub-Saharan African countries. All studies are performed in close collaboration with partners in the according countries to foster local capacities for disease detection and control. Our focus is on non-human primates since pathogens readily cross the species barrier to the closely related humans. We also investigate other wildlife species, especially those which have adapted to human settlements (bats and rodents) as well as livestock as intermediate hosts.

At the same time, we collect environmental and epidemiological data in the respective regions. This multifactorial approach enables us to reconstruct potential transmission cycles between humans and animals and to pinpoint sources of pathogen outbreaks.

II Viral evolution

Group lead: Dr. Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer

The last decade witnessed the simultaneous development of powerful sequencing and statistical methods. This was particularly profitable to our understanding of the biology, spread and recent evolutionary history of measurably evolving viruses, i.e. RNA viruses, including influenza and Ebola viruses. The deep evolutionary history of many viruses was also considerably clarified. It now seems clear that a number of viral lineages have been associated to their hosts for much longer than previously thought. However, such progresses in our understanding of the long-term evolution of viruses (whether fast or slow evolving) have only rarely been leveraged to investigate public health-related questions.

Our work precisely aims at deriving public health-relevant predictions from the study of the deep evolution of viruses. We do this by focusing on African great apes and bats, and investigating all conceivable sources of information on their co-evolution with viruses – from their own genomes to the genomes of their exogenous viruses, using contemporaneous and historical samples. We use this information to identify ancient host-virus associations and the processes that shaped these associations, e.g. co-divergence, host switches, etc. We expect this will ultimately allow us to pinpoint viral lineages more likely to commit into cross-species jumps, to predict the existence of yet-to-be-discovered human viruses and to identify natural hosts of "orphan" viruses.

III Surveillance of zoonotic infections in rural Africa

Group lead: Dr. Grit Schubert

Through the transnational project ANDEMIA (African Network for improved Diagnostics, Epidemiology and Management of Common Infectious Agents) we aim to research and combat acute respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections, the emergence of antimicrobial resistance and acute febrile disease of unknown cause in sub-Saharan Africa. While this project is a collaborative effort between many units at RKI and several African partners, our group focuses on pathogens of animal origin. Rarely have international consortia focused on such common disease syndromes. This is a significant public health oversight because recent studies demonstrate that they are a main cause of morbidity and mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, but are not sufficiently addressed by vertical disease programs.

After identifying the pathogens underlying the above syndromes, we aim to guide appropriate interventions, such as implementing rapid diagnostic tests where appropriate and introducing infection control measures (e.g. vector control) and outbreak management. Our hypothesis is that locally adopted interventions based on integrated surveillance data (using clinical and laboratory data gathered at various "sentinel" hospital sites) are more effective in improving patient outcomes and disease prevention than vertical disease programs.


Maja Kovacev-Wegener
Ulrike Mathis

Group members

Dr. Grit Schubert
Dr. Susanne Köhler
Dr. Livia Patrono
Etile Anoh, Dipl. Biol.
Leonce Kouadio, Dipl. Biol.
Freda Madinda, Dipl. Biol.
Arséne Mossoun, Dipl. Biol.
Abdollah Aghebat Rafat, Dipl. Biol.
Jan Gogarten, MSc. Biol.
Marina Reus, BSc. Biol.
Ariane Düx, vet
Mathilde Ethuin, vet
Tobias Gräßle, vet
Kim Grützmacher, vet
Alexander Lang, vet
Therese Löhrich, vet
Benjamin Mubemba, vet
Luke Nyakarahuka, vet
Ulla Thiesen, MTA
Kevin Merkel, CTA
Andreas Sachse, CTA
Verena Keil, stud. assistant
Markus Ullrich, stud. assistant

Date: 07.04.2021