Preparing for the next pandemic

Here’s the bad news – increasing urbanisation, population and interaction between animals and humans make future pandemics ‘inevitable’.

The good news? Smart people are on the case, they have been for years and they’re making important discoveries.

On 9 April, it was confirmed that researchers with the Global Health Program (GHP) had discovered six new coronaviruses in bats in Myanmar.

The findings “will help (us) understand the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and inform global efforts to detect, prevent and respond to infectious diseases that may threaten public health, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic”.

The GHP is run by the Smithsonian Institute, the world’s largest museum and research complex, based on the One Health platform, which recognises “the health of all species – human and non-human animals – are inextricably linked to one another and to the environments they share”.

Scientists are concluding that the continued expansion of human settlement into wildlife habitats is putting humans closer to virus-carrying animals.

The GHP is working on the PREDICT program, which targets “viruses that may spill over from animal hosts to people”.

This is crucial because the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that “three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals”.

And the research of disease ecologist Peter Daszak shows bats contain the highest proportion of mammalian viruses that are likely to infect people. Coronaviruses have co-evolved with bats without making bats sick. But when these viruses cross to new species, the result can be severe. As we now know, rapid population growth and cheap, plentiful transportation means a virus can travel across in the world in a day.

Dr Daszak works for the EcoHealth Alliance, one of the partners in the PREDICT program. The EcoHealth Alliance is a “global environmental health non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease”. He says it’s “a simple mathematical certainty” that there will be more outbreaks like COVID-19 and that investment is needed now.

“The difficulty of anticipating emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) is a symptom of the public health system’s emphasis on response rather than prediction and prevention. This status quo in public health leaves us unequipped to address emerging disease threats”.

The EcoHealth Alliance’s 2016 paper, Envisioning A World Without Emerging Infectious Disease Outbreaks, outlines five key concepts:

  • Improve public health surveillance systems. Target the source of outbreaks. “We need a strengthened global health capacity, including a more coordinated, proactive approach to EIDs.”
  • Integrate surveillance of pathogens in wildlife into routine disease monitoring systems. Information on pathogens can then circulate before humans are infected.
  • Adopt the One Health viewpoint in which humans, animals, and the environment are connected.
  • Connect government departments with all other relevant sectors to share information and collaborate on surveillance and planning.
  • Require health impact assessments before development projects are approved to help anticipate disease risks.

It’s big picture stuff, but as we now know diseases such as coronavirus demand such thinking.

“Viral pandemics remind us how closely human health is connected to the health of wildlife and the environment,” said Marc Valitutto, former wildlife veterinarian with the GHP and lead author of the Myanmar study.

“Worldwide, humans are interacting with wildlife with increasing frequency, so the more we understand about these viruses in animals – what allows them to mutate and how they spread to other species – the better we can reduce their pandemic potential.”

Suzan Murray, GHP director and co-author of the study, says identifying diseases early, in animals, provides a “valuable opportunity to investigate the potential threat.”

“Vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.”

Is it a rather frightening thought that we are researching the next pandemic before we have this one under control?

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Written by Will Brodie

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