ViralMuse Task Force

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Mission Statement

ViralMuse, as the name of the group suggests, points out the need for a closer, integrated, long-term relationship between the virology community and the natural history museums housing vouchered specimens. Bearing all of this in mind, ViralMuse Task Force was born to (re)start a multi-disciplinary conversation about the need to build this fundamental bridge between natural history collections and public health, especially in the context of the need for explicit, verifiable host-species, host-pathogen relationships and evolution.

Task Force Origins

In response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, natural history museum faculty and staff recognized the need to organize a task force to coalesce needed responses to the current SARS-Cov-2 virus "spillover" event. Goals of the group include producing recommendations for the COVID-19 situation that leverage the biodiversity infrastructure (e.g., specimens and informatics) of natural history museums and draw attention to the changes in standards of practice seen as critical by this group for preventing and mitigating future emerging zoonotic events. Members of this group note that much of what is needed is known. Questions center on how to ensure everyone (i.e. scientific, government, individuals) can move forward to implement recommended changes.


Data sharing and integration across different disciplines are becoming the rule in a world ever more connected. Online databases are growing in popularity and constantly being updated, serving as an important tool for researchers worldwide. The fact that a scientist based in Asia can download and access specimen data collected in Europe, which are stored in an online database housed in North America, proves the point of how interconnected science is. Moreover, papers listing authorship of over 10 researchers or a consortium group constitute an increasing portion of scientific literature today.

Nonetheless, this interconnectedness is hard to achieve across disciplines not typically integrated and is even harder to accomplish when there is no effort in establishing a permanent and effective connection. Natural history and public health have rarely been seen as allied, yet there are many opportunities to build up integrated knowledge. The case for mutual benefit between both disciplines was made over 100 years ago, when a Department of Public Health was created in the American Museum of Natural History (Brown, 2014). Despite its success, this department was shortly dissolved due to lack of funding and resistance within and outside the museum.

It is not surprising to witness new ideas being met with resistance, yet, in times of distress we are reminded of how lost opportunities could have made a big difference in advancing our knowledge. Imagine how integrated the study of pathogens and the use of natural history collections could be if the Department of Public Health at the AMNH was celebrating its 111th birthday!

Current Activities

As a first effort, ViralMuse synthesized a set of recommendations (technical and social) designed to spur conversation toward concrete actions. Many groups around the world recognize the need to take steps, and the ViralMuse group works collaboratively with the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID-19 Task Force. Experts from this group joined in co-authoring an opinion piece summarizing thoughts for next steps needed both in the short and long term.

Five Key Elements

  1. Collaborative development of guidelines for sampling, preserving, and archiving samples of both pathogens and hosts.
  2. Collaborative development of metadata requirements to accompany the physical specimens and samples collected, analyzed, and archived.
  3. Expanded investment in infrastructure, both cyber and physical, to support archives of biological materials.
  4. Increased communication and development of new channels of dialogue and collaboration among museum scientists, virologists, bioinformaticians, biomedical professionals, and disease ecologists.
  5. Enhancement of financial support and strong leadership from federal agencies, international partners, and private foundations to develop proactive, multi-disciplinary approaches to future pandemics.

Outputs and Actions

  • updated the known USA genetic resources (See Maria's blog post)
  • paper published in BioScience to highlight the needed actions: Joseph A Cook, Satoru Arai, Blas Armién, John Bates, Carlos A Carrion Bonilla, Maria Beatriz de Souza Cortez, Jonathan L Dunnum, Adam W Ferguson, Karl M Johnson, Faisal Ali Anwarali Khan, Deborah L Paul, DeeAnn M Reeder, Marcia A Revelez, Nancy B Simmons, Barbara M Thiers, Cody W Thompson, Nathan S Upham, Maarten P M Vanhove, Paul W Webala, Marcelo Weksler, Richard Yanagihara, Pamela S Soltis, Integrating Biodiversity Infrastructure into Pathogen Discovery and Mitigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases, BioScience,
  • seeking grant to broaden and expand the conversation to relevant stakeholders, e.g. linking existing networks together (e.g., One Health with iDigBio etc.) starting with a workshop and webinar series currently in development.
  • continue to work with the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID19 TaskForce
  • link our work to the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID19 HUB (in development)

Founding Members


Cook et al. 2020. BioScience Viewpoint paper (in press)

Brown, J. K. 2014. Connecting Health and Natural History A Failed Initiative at the American Museum of Natural History, 1909-1922. American Journal of Public Health 104: 1877-1888 https://doi:10.2105/ AJPH.2013.301384

DiEuliis, D., K. R. Johnson, S. S. Morse, and D. E. Schindel. 2016. Opinion: Specimen collections should have a much bigger role in infectious disease research and response. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 113:4-7.

Dunnum, J. L., R. Yanagihara, K. M. Johnson, B. Armien, N. Batsaikhan, L. Morgan, and J. A. Cook. 2017. Biospecimen repositories and integrated databases as critical infrastructure for pathogen discovery and pathobiology research. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 11:e0005133.

Lendemer, J., B. Thiers, A. K. Monfils, J. Zaspel, E. R. Ellwood, A. Bentley, K. LeVan, J. Bates, D. Jennings, D. Contreras, L. Lagomarsino, P. Mabee, L. S. Ford, R. Guralnick, R. E. Gropp, M. Revelez, N. Cobb, K. Seltmann, and M. C. Aime. 2020. The Extended Specimen Network: A strategy to enhance US biodiversity collections, promote research and education. Bioscience 70:23-30.

External Links