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New Centre for Viral Zoonoses established at UP
28 June 2016

The University of Pretoria (UP) Senate approved the establishment of a new Centre for Viral Zoonoses (UP CVZ) on 2 June 2016. The Centre is a multi-disciplinary, inter-faculty initiative that will contribute towards the continued expansion of the work being done under the Institutional Research Theme, Animal and Zoonotic Diseases, which was established in 2012. According to Prof Wanda Markotter, the Director of the UP CVZ, the Centre's vision is to be a research centre of excellence in viral zoonotic diseases that are of concern in terms of public health, not only in Africa, but also globally.

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be spread between animals and humans. They can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than six out of every ten infectious diseases contracted by humans are spread from animals, while another statistic suggests that most emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases in the past few decades had zoonotic origins, with the majority of these pathogens having originated in Africa. These diseases, which are collectively known as zoonoses, are a major driver in global health security and international health regulations, and research activities in this field are in line with the priorities of the National Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as programmes of international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Prof Markotter explains that studying zoonotic diseases requires a multidisciplinary, 'One Health' approach that focusses on the interfaces between humans, animals and their various environments. To achieve this, insect or animal vectors, reservoirs that include wildlife, domestic and livestock animals and several aspects on ecology have to be investigated. Prof Markotter says that UP is strategically extremely well positioned to host a centre like the UP CVZ, as it has three faculties which, combined, possess the necessary expertise and infrastructure to address the multidisciplinary research aspects of this complex field, namely the Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Veterinary Science and the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. The Centre will encourage collaborative research involving partners from multiple disciplines within UP, but will also collaborate with various other regional, national and international partners. This will include joining forces with established groups conducting research on arbovirology, viral zoonotic diseases spread by bats and other small mammals, rabies and rabies-related lyssaviruses, viral pathology, medical entomology and ecology. The Centre will strive to generate new knowledge through surveillance; to build diagnostic capacity through innovation in epidemiology, pathology, pathogenesis and ecology of zoonotic pathogens in humans and animals; and to identify intervention strategies for effective disease control.

The Centre currently has around 20 full-time academic staff members who represent the three faculties mentioned above and are affiliated with eight academic departments at the University. The Centre is structured around the laboratory infrastructure available at the Department of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Health Sciences' School of Medicine, which includes a state-of-the-art, biosafety-level-3 (BSL-3) laboratory that can process both human and animal samples. UP CVZ members, including postgraduate students, who are not located at the Faculty of Health Sciences will have a virtual link to the Centre.

Research within the Centre is well supported by funding from the CDC's Global Disease Detection programme. Individual researchers affiliated with the Centre also have their own sources of funding, which includes grants from the National Research Foundation and international funding from the Robert Koch Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Prof Markotter was awarded a chair in Animal Infectious Diseases by the South African Research Chairs Initiative earlier in 2016, which further strengthens this focus area and provides a competitive advantage in obtaining research funding in the future. The Centre will also tap into new funding opportunities in order to increase third-stream income and provide funds for self-initiated research projects.   

The newly established UP CVZ has the potential not only to significantly enhance the University's national and international profile in zoonotic disease research, but also to be a leader in the fight against some of the most devastating diseases that we have ever faced in the history of mankind. 


- Author Ansa Heyl
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Last edited by Patrick RakgothoEdit
Prof Wanda Markotter