Jul 9, 2020 - Health

How the world could monitor for potential pandemic viruses

Illustration of security camera watching a cow

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The spillover of pathogens from animals to humans — driven mainly by human behaviors like urbanization and the demand to eat meat — is increasing and will continue wreaking havoc unless global action is taken.

Driving the news: The United Nations Environment Program issued a report this week outlining steps to prevent spillovers and encouraging governments to adopt a "One Health" approach to humans, animals and the environment.

  • Countries need to be all working on the same page and make sure "that the human disease surveillance systems are sophisticated and sensitive enough that they can catch any cases that do spillover to humans," says Julie Fischer, senior technical adviser to the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium.

What can be done: Several scientific experts tell Axios global surveillance is one of the big first steps to prevention.

1. Track wildlife and livestock to catch pathogens before they spread to humans.

  • One suggestion is reinstating PREDICT, a federally funded program designed to hunt down new pandemic pathogens globally that was shut down in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its now-prescient warnings. A USAID spokesperson told the L.A. Times there would be a new initiative to stop the spillover of viruses from animals to humans awarded in August.
  • Another could be "a more cost-effective, decentralized disease surveillance system" that empowers local wildlife and public health professionals to test for diseases year round, at the source, according to a proposal published in Science Thursday by the Wildlife Disease Surveillance Focus Group.

2. Fund and facilitate new technologies that can provide efficient, less costly and consistent testing, even in remote areas.

  • "There is a scarcity of genetic and genomic research technologies within the conservation world and within ecology, at a lot of these really biodiverse regions. And we think that this decentralized model can really bring that technology to those areas," says Caroline Moore, a fellow with San Diego Zoo Global in disease investigations and part of the focus group.

3. Develop global databases to first track what's happening in wildlife and then eventually with humans.

  • Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa, another focus group member and researcher for the Institute for Conservation Research, says they hope to establish a wildlife database similar to the GISAID initiative, originally designed to track influenza but now also focused on COVID-19.

Background: Zoonotic diseases, or those that originated in animal hosts and transferred to humans, tend to be the ones that lead to pandemics. COVID-19, MERS, Ebola, bird flu and the West Nile virus are just some that have had devastating results.

  • The human population has grown from roughly 1.6 billion in 1900 to about 7.8 billion today, stressing the Earth's land and resources.
  • Modern farming practices, climate change, continued wildlife markets and unsustainable land management have led to the increased outbreaks, according to the report by the UNEP and International Livestock Research Institute.
  • Some zoonotic diseases become endemic, regularly killing people. For example, the report warns that endemic zoonotic diseases associated with livestock cause more than 2 million deaths a year, mostly in low and middle-income countries.

What to watch: Global scientific collaboration is key — a prong recently weakened by the recent U.S. announcement that it will leave the WHO, which was a "wrong-headed decision," says Ali Nouri, president of the American Federation of Scientists, which is part of the Pandemic Action Network that advocates for policy change to strengthen pandemic preparedness.

  • "It's critically important that we have more international partnerships and more research collaboration to do more disease surveillance and really understand the dynamics of the spread from animals to humans," Nouri says.
  • And, UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement that other key actions will be to "conserve wild habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate food markets, invest in technology to identify risks, and curb the illegal trade in wildlife."

Go deeper: WHO warns of 13 emerging health threats including possible pandemics

Go deeper