The COVID-19 pandemic felt for many of us like it came out of the blue, but scientists have long been sounding the alarm about a potential pandemic from a coronavirus.

We already had warnings with the SARS and MERS outbreaks, both caused by coronaviruses, and both spilled over from animals into humans. Given the way people continue to encroach on animal habitats, trade wildlife and eat bushmeat, it is increasingly likely that zoonotic diseases that come from animals will cause future pandemics.

This already happens more often than you might think. Since the 1940s more than 330 emerging infectious diseases have been identified, of which 60% were zoonotic. And when a new infectious disease does emerge, human migration, population growth, rapid global travel, climate change urbanisation and dense urban slums can all hasten its spread. Given that more people are living in closer proximity to each other than ever before and that normally more than a billion people cross international borders each year, it has never been easier for outbreaks to escalate and spread globally.

With the current pandemic, research carried out in response to previous coronavirus outbreaks and developments in vaccine technologies gave us a head-start that meant that COVID-19 vaccines could be developed rapidly. Even so, at the outset we had limited national systems for case detection and tracking of epidemic spread. The complete lack of treatments or existing vaccines meant that in the year that it took to develop vaccines, millions lost their lives to COVID-19.

R&D tends to focus on immediate threats, and often on drugs, vaccines or diagnostics that are most profitable, which explains why many diseases identified by World Health Organization as having a high potential to cause future pandemics are currently being neglected. Many of these threats affect low- and middle-income countries and have little or no research and development ongoing. This is dangerous, and means that if any of these diseases turn pandemic, we could once again be caught off guard. Millions of lives could be lost.

 

In this series, we look at which pathogens currently pose the greatest pandemic threat, why that is and what research has been carried out into mitigating their impact.

The next pandemic

The next pandemic: Nipah virus?

Nipah virus can kill as many as three out of four people it infects. Since the fruit bat that carries the virus often comes into contact with humans, here we explain why the development of drugs and vaccines for the disease is becoming increasingly more urgent.

The next pandemic: Ebola?

Ebola has so far only affected African countries and occasional cases outside of the continent have been rapidly contained. But the virus could mutate to spread more easily between people, making it more of a pandemic threat.

The next pandemic: Chikungunya?

The tiger mosquito that carries the chikungunya virus is now moving into new habitats in Europe and America thanks to climate change. This means the once tropical disease could soon become a global pandemic threat.

The next pandemic: H5N1 and H7N9 influenza?

More than 100 years after the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, type A influenza virus not only poses one of the largest threats to the modern world, but the risk of spill-over of avian influenza from poultry to humans is growing.

The next pandemic: Yellow fever?

In the 19th century, yellow fever had taken hold of parts of Europe and the USA, especially the Deep South, killing thousands. Now mostly in Africa and South America, this mosquito-borne disease could spread at any moment, threatening public health and economic security worldwide.

The next pandemic: Marburg?

A deadly cousin of Ebola, Marburg can kill nine out of ten people it infects, and international travel has taken it from Africa to Europe twice in the past 40 years. Will increasing globalisation make this virus more likely to erupt around the world?

The next pandemic: Lassa fever?

Like many potentially pandemic diseases, Lassa fever is spread by a virus carried by animals – in this case, rats – and in West Africa where it is endemic, it can be as dangerous as Ebola or COVID-19.

The Next Pandemic: Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever?

Climate change, changes in land use, recreational activities and the trade of infected animals could make this fatal disease more commonplace.

The Next Pandemic: Hantavirus?

Spread from rodents to humans, old and new world Hantavirus has become endemic in many continents, but are sporadic cases of person-to-person transmission strong enough evidence to fear its pandemic potential?

TOPICS: Next pandemic

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