The urgent development of multiple vaccination initiatives around the world is accelerating at a pace never before seen. We are inching closer to bringing the highly virulent COVID-19 pandemic under greater control. Yet, for humanity, aquacultured fish and shrimp, and farmed livestock, upon which we depend on for our food supply, the year 2020 is a harbinger of the exceptionally dangerous, looming existential threat zoonotic pathogens pose to people and their livestock.
Zoonotic pathogens are contagious viruses and bacteria that can nimbly hop between species. Ebola, SARS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, Zika, and Covid-19 viruses are deadly zoonotic pathogens. Developing vaccines for these growing threats relies on the extremely challenging and complex fields of bioinformatics, genomics, epidemiology as well as human and veterinary immunology. Interagency and international efforts are constantly working to achieve critical breakthroughs. One of such revolutionary efforts is being advanced by the work of Weizhi Zhang at PhycoVax, a biotech start-up focused on developing and commercializing highly effective vaccine-based-feeds and other aquaculture therapeutics and animal health products. PhycoVax has already developed and patented that are part of the vaccine revolution, with more patent-pending tech on the way.
A graduate product in Mathematics from Beihang University – one of the leading engineering institutions in China, Zhang earned a Master’s degree in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley Campus, which is based within the NASA Ames Research Center. Zhang’s vital work at Phycovax includes the development of a new online tools and visualization platform designed to accelerate the early adoption of PhycoVax’s highly-effective vaccines worldwide.
Zhang’s research incorporates new modeling techniques, high-resolution graphics with analytic applications combined with practical marketing applications built into intuitive dashboards that elegantly bridge the communication divide between immunologists and busy farmers, who must both contend with new health threats that can decimate their livestock in a matter of days. Getting alerts about outbreaks in a timely and clear way can mean the difference between life and death, not just for their farmed livestock, but sometimes for the people who consume them…and sometimes can trigger epidemics, even global pandemics, and devastating economic upheaval.
Weizhi’s work focuses on the diverse, nuanced, and complex world of global shrimp aquaculture ranging from vast farms and tens of thousands of smallholder shrimp farms, with an annual yield collectively of 5 million metric tons. The biggest shrimp producers are India, China and Indonesia followed by Ecuador and Mexico. These shrimp farming regions boast 97 percent of global shrimp production, which accounts for the largest portion of the annual seafood consumed in the world.
Translating the intricacies and complexities of pharmaceutical product research and development that involves genomics, bioinformatics, and nanotech bioengineering and a host of mind-boggling new biotech into the parlance of shrimp commercial trade from international import and export, right down to shrimp farming at every conceivable scale is a staggering technical challenge.
Yet Zhang has risen to the challenge and is busy developing visualization platforms with tools that help drive buying decisions favorable to PhycoVax and US biotech and giant feed production companies seeking to capture and serve the $10 billion dollar shrimp feed and vaccine market.
More than a year ago, Zhang was introduced to Thomas Grimm, a visionary ocean farmer, by a mutual friend and investor in aquaculture technologies and farms in the US, China, and Canada. Grimm led a Computer Science Practicum at CMU-SV while serving as a consultant to NASA on analyzing the potential of microalgae for biofuel. In the Practicum, computer scientist students developed a geospatially-explicit suite of interactive visualization tools for disaster management that synchronized, exchanged, and displayed real-time streaming data from a multiplicity of sources in a platform referred to as a “Common Operating Pictures,” for military war rooms. This research served as the foundation for Grimm’s and Zhang’s advanced collaborative work. Together they are striving to apply and repurpose these powerful visualization analytic platforms with practical tools to equip scientists, farmers, government agencies, and regulators with the fast-paced, data-rich biotechnical information that can also help inform and support the global research community working to develop vaccines against emerging zoonotic pathogens. In short, it openly shares vital information that the entire value-chain of participants involved with livestock and aquaculture production, including health management, feed producers, and seafood distributors with a single platform customizable to suit their particular needs in a timely manner.
This reliable, highly interactive platform, with customizable dashboards, will connect a cohort of scientists, researchers, and contributors from extremely diversified fields to collaborate in charting trends, identifying and map hot spots, under the mantle of open-source, international cooperation.
This platform will help livestock and wildlife veterinarians and other first responders observe and track the spread of zoonotic disease outbreaks, and provide critical information on how to mitigate the impacts of outbreaks to farmers. Even the effects of how current weather events can change the course and speed of outbreaks are integrated into the platform.
At the same time, this visualization platform can be customized not only for fish and shrimp farmers but for the seafood distribution industries by providing them with information that will impact the seafood market prices and alert them quickly to potential disruptions in their supply chains. In the long term, all the associated entities and stakeholders will be equipped with new, powerful tools that help adapt and optimize their business based on the platform’s intricate predictive visualization modeling.
Real-Time Integrated Data Collection and Visualization Platform
Zhang curated his data collection and integration model with a fresh new perspective coupled with the seasoned expertise he acquired working and studying in Silicon Valley, resulting in the development of powerful new tools, with new applications beyond their original intended purpose.
The sources his data used to track zoonotic pathogen outbreaks come from a variety of sources, ranging from national and regional medical research centers to remote field stations, makeshift labs, vast recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) shrimp and salmon, and enormous feedlots with hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle, to boutique under-resourced shrimp and fish farms, all of which, in one manner or another interact with state departments and government personnel, such as Public Health Inspectors. These folks working on the ground, and even on the ocean, further report to entities such as USAID, CDC, USDA and FDA and their counterparts around the world. This information is shared with international bodies like WHO and FAO and backed down through USAID, local health bodies and NGOs, and eventually to farmers. The visualization data platform is a living system, and as well other large data-driven software platforms, need to be continually upgraded with the latest technologies integrated to maintain accuracy and relevancy.
Nevertheless, Weizhi Zhang’s relentless research and the subsequent development of his analytic visualization tools and platforms will not only enrich the global knowledge-sharing space but also function as a valuable tool to identify, track, manage and control the spread of zoonotic diseases that will potentially save millions of lives from wildlife, livestock and human populations.
Equipping farmers with vital info when it’s needed
Zhang’s online toolkit will come equipped with customized versions geared to help farmers better understand cost-effective techniques that will improve farm hygiene and its biosecurity. It will broadcast alerts when local disease outbreaks occur and chalk down steps to avoid cross-contamination. These tools will help farmers optimize and scale their production commercially.
PhycoVax disrupts the status quo with its innovative vaccine-dosed feeds for shrimps, shellfishes, and fish farming. Interestingly, these vaccines come with great flexibility that opens the door to treating numerous other major livestock diseases – with the potential to reduce farmers’ losses dramatically. In their own words, they are “a diverse community with a shared passion.” Zhang’s online visualization platform and interactive, customizable dashboard will be a powerful marketing force to create awareness and drive acceptance by farmers of practical application these highly effective economic vaccine-based-feeds that are much safer than the overuse of antibiotics, which are no prohibited by the European Market and will soon be prohibited for import in the U.S.
Zhang understands that aquaculture is becoming increasingly important as one of the most crucial and sustainable sources of nutrition-rich food for our growing population, which could add another two billion more souls in the next decade. He knows it critical to build new tools to support sustainable aquaculture capable of meeting the demands of the future. This is why his work is focused on creating new, practical tools to help farmers work more effectively with veterinarians, doctors, livestock scientists, regulators, and each other, build a healthier, more sustainable world for themselves, their farm families, the farming communities in which they work – feed the people of the world today and future generations, yet unborn, with healthy, antibiotic-free, nutritious food.