$26 million for WSU | Record gift will complete a research center and expand the response here and in Africa to a growing danger of animal-to-human infections.

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A disease on a farm in Africa can ruin a family’s livelihood. But it can also travel to Washington state and start an epidemic.

Connecting the two, Washington State University is taking its local roots in agriculture and veterinary medicine to a global scale with the largest private donation in its 120-year history — $26 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The gift, announced Thursday, will help build the School for Global Animal Health, focusing on the science that looks at new human diseases originating in animals, such as swine flu, avian flu, Ebola and West Nile virus.

“I’ve been looking over 10 years for the right opportunity to do something with Washington State,” Allen said. “This particular gift, because it’s focused on animal health in the Third World and Africa, which I’ve grown really to care about, it just really resonated with me.”

The grant also boosted a fundraising campaign unveiled Thursday by WSU to raise $1 billion by 2015. The university has raised $532 million so far in an effort it started privately and quietly four years ago, university President Elson Floyd told supporters in Seattle.

“As a land-grant university in the 21st century, Washington State University must be global — conducting research that benefits the world,” Floyd said. It should focus on society’s most pressing issues and prepare students to move across cultures and borders, he said.

Coming two years after a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to begin construction of the School for Global Animal Health, Allen’s donation will be used to complete the 62,000-square-foot research building in Pullman.

Allen attended WSU from 1971 to 1974 but left to work in the computer industry, founding Microsoft with Gates a year later.

Allen’s donation will help the school add more than 20 researchers in Pullman over the next decade and expand the number of graduate students to more than 100, WSU said. The school will be named the Paul G. Allen School of Global Animal Health.

The donation also will boost a plan to establish research programs in Africa and exchange programs with institutions in Kenya and Tanzania. The school’s core mission is to improve the health and economic security of the 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day, whose income depends on livestock.

“The result will be healthier animals, healthier and more economically secure families, and a brighter future for some of the most gracious and hardworking people in the world,” said Guy Palmer, director of the school.

About 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans originate in animals, including anthrax, HIV and mad cow, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The school has developed an expertise in this field, called Zoonotics, and is working in disease detection, vaccine development and preventing disease transmission.

The goal of WSU’s expansion in Africa will be to increase the disease-surveillance capacity in the region, said Bryan Slinker, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

WSU will collaborate with research labs, universities and communities to build networks to detect emerging pathogens and to increase training programs.

“If there was a lot better surveillance, we might have detected the emergence of HIV in Africa years before it was detected in industrialized populations,” Slinker said. Better methods for disease detection “might shave five or 10 years off the timeline and allow us to respond much more quickly to the public threat.”

Global travel speeds transmission and eliminates borders, Slinker said.

“Avian influenza caused so much trouble in China in terms of passing from birds to humans; it impacted air travel so extensively that some airlines had difficulty, and then Boeing lost orders for airline sales,” he said.

The program is part of a long-term vision at WSU to fund the next “big ideas” for health, food, sustainability, global leadership and the economic vitality of the state, Floyd said.

WSU can apply its agricultural expertise to build a modern food system that is “productive, competitive, sustainable and safe,” he said, with the university’s plant scientists tackling problems such as hunger and malnutrition.

“The result will be sweeping changes in the food and agriculture system, the state’s No. 1 industry,” Floyd said.

More than 130,000 donors have contributed to the $1 billion WSU campaign, including 80 with commitments of $1 million or more.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com