Congo Basin Institute an emerging game-changer

February 5, 2018

The Congo Basin Institute (CBI), launched in 2015 as the first foreign affiliate for UCLA, partners with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture to addresses challenges of food and water security, climate, biodiversity loss, public health and emerging disease in the 1.4 million square miles of Congo rainforest.

CBI is attracting many institutional partners; these include both regional and international universities and non-government organizations.  They include UC Riverside, with UC Davis expected to join soon. The institute provides an important permanent base in Africa where local and international researchers can pursue collaborative research and find solutions to disease challenges.  

The burden of emerging infectious and neglected tropical disease is high in the region, and for one key CBI project, researchers use novel methods – combined with expertise in ecological modeling and wildlife sampling -- to predict and map areas of greatest risk.

The data from the CBI’s “Predictive Modeling of Emerging Tropical Disease” project can ultimately help public health decision-makers control diseases, such as Ebola, monkeypox, avian and swine influenza, said Thomas Smith, Co-Executive Director of the Congo Basin Institute and a professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA.

Smith, who has conducted research in Cameroon for more than 35 years, created the CBI with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture.

Samples of predictive modeling

At least 25 separate outbreaks of the Ebola virus have been recorded in West and Central Africa since 1976, although none was more devastating than the 2014 outbreak, which primarily occurred in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

CBI has amassed a dataset of nearly 400 individual locations and case counts for this outbreak and is applying techniques – normally used to forecast earthquakes and wildfires – to these data to predict how the disease spread among regions. Its models suggest that researchers can maximize efficiency in control efforts while outbreaks are occurring, rather than after they have already had devastating effects.

In 2006, avian influenza was detected in arid areas in northern Cameroon. Climate change is predicted to dry these areas even further drier over the next four decades. This could cause crowding of wild birds around the remaining water bodies, increasing opportunities for influenza transmission. CBI researchers are characterizing the spatial pattern of influenza prevalence in Central Africa, and identifying the most important host species. They have screened thousands of samples from wild and domestic birds, as well as pigs.

Like UC Davis’ PREDICT, a key goal of CBI is to build long-lasting programs and regions’ capacity to study and combat diseases. “Many institutes that focus on the developing world are based elsewhere, such as Paris or New York, not in the developing world,” Smith said. “Researchers typically parachute in to address a single issue for five years at most, but once the program ends, the projects are not carried forward.

“The CBI has tremendous capacity to address Central Africa’s education, environmental and health challenges in a substantive and sustainable fashion, and to build something with a lasting impact,” he said.