Predicting the next pandemic 'harder than we think', scientists warn

Alexandra Thompson
·3-min read
Closeup portrait of a young African American woman with face mask on the studio against white background.
The World Health Organization has warned the coronavirus pandemic is 'not necessarily the big one'. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Scientists have warned predicting the next pandemic will be "harder than we think".

The coronavirus outbreak has killed more than three million people since it was identified on 31 December 2019. 

The fatalities are far from the pandemic's only consequence, however, with healthcare systems, economies and people's mental health all coming under strain.

While many are keen to return to the lives we once knew, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the coronavirus pandemic is "not necessarily the big one".

In the UK, the Labour party is therefore calling on the government to hold annual planning exercises to prepare for an "era of pandemics".

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While some scientists have attempted to second-guess how another infection may "jump" from animals into humans, a team from the University of Sydney has called these predictions of "limited value".

Perhaps reassuringly, the Sydney scientists have stressed pandemics could be prevented if humans and animals were screened at the sites where they interact most.

Unable to marshal the right cells and molecules to fight off the invader, the bodies of the infected instead launch an entire arsenal of weapons — a misguided barrage that can wreak havoc on healthy tissues, experts said. (Getty Images)
The circulating coronavirus is thought to have started in bats before 'jumping' into humans, possibly via an intermediate species. (Stock, Getty Images)

The circulating coronavirus is thought to have jumped from bats into humans, possibly via an intermediate species, like pangolins.

The infection is one of seven strains of the coronavirus class that are known to infect humans, with others causing Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers).

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Sars, which killed 774 people during its 2003 outbreak, is thought to have started in bats before infecting humans, possibly via masked palm civets.

Meanwhile, Mers, which killed 858 people in its 2012 outbreak, likely also originated in bats and resides in the nostrils of camels.

Coronavirus infections are far from the only pathogens that are thought to have started in animals, with other examples including bubonic plague, smallpox and bird flu, to name just a few outbreaks that have arisen over the centuries.

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Previous outbreaks have caused some scientists to attempt "zoonotic risk prediction". A zoonotic disease is caused by "germs that spread between animals and people".

Writing in the journal PLOS Biology, the Sydney team states "probably" less than 0.001% of all viruses have ever been identified, "despite decades of work".

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The "tiny data sets" these predictions are based on are also "highly biased towards those viruses that most infect humans or agricultural animals, or are already known to [be] zoonotic".  

Overall, most animals have not been screened for viruses, the Sydney scientists have stressed.

The infections' fast mutation rates also mean any screenings quickly become out of date, they added.

The scientists are therefore calling for a new approach, where "extensive sampling" of both animals and humans is carried out at the places where they generally interact, dubbed "the animal-human interface". 

"Such enhanced surveillance may help us prevent something like COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] ever happening again," they wrote.

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