HIV, Ebola, Sars, Zika, swine flu and Covid-19 are all zoonotic viruses: they crossed over from animals. Viruses are not technically alive, they are a strand of genetic code enclosed in a protein sheath and they need a plant or animal to act as a host to be able to reproduce. There are around 1.6 million viruses that reside in mammals and birds and around half of them may be able to infect humans; so far, only around 250 have made the leap to humans but whilst they may infect a human, the problem starts when they mutate and are able to be transmitted from human to human.
Projects to identify and study viruses may help treatment, although the largest such study was cancelled by the Trump administration in 2019. Development of broad vaccines that may address a range of viruses comprise a further treatment for pandemic risk but may be years away from realisation.
In the meantime, monitoring of the risk can help address outbreaks quickly. Risk monitoring requires you to understand the risk and to work out the factors driving it; you then keep an eye on those factors.
The main factors driving zoonotic virus spread are deforestation and the illegal trade in animals – when you traffic rare animals, you traffic their viruses. Where you have the destruction of forests, the hardiest animals survive and move out, these are the animals most likely to harbour disease. The multimammate mouse for example thrives in areas of deforestation and it is the “reservoir host” for Lassa fever that kills thousands of people in west Africa every year.
It appears that there is a crucial tipping point in environmental degradation: when 40% of an area is destroyed, animals start pouring out and behaving in different ways in order to survive. These are the hotspots for pandemic risk. Monitoring human health together with what is happening to wildlife in these hotspot areas would enable rapid identification and action that could stop another global pandemic.
And stopping deforestation and rare animal trafficking altogether would have a very fast payback when measured against the impact of the current pandemic.
Data Sources:Financial Times magazine, Fortune magazine