Global health experts who study how and where new diseases emerge, have said that human encroachment on the natural world speeds up pandemics and COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.
Based on their studies, these specialists have developed a pattern-recognition system to predict which wildlife diseases pose most risk to humans. This approach is led by scientists at the University of Liverpool, UK, but it is part of a global effort to develop ways to prepare better for future pandemics.
University of Liverpool Professor Matthew Baylis said, “In the last 20 years, we’ve had six significant threats - SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian influenza and swine ‘flu. We dodged five bullets but the sixth got us, and this is not the last pandemic we are going to face, so we need to be looking more closely at wildlife diseases.”
As part of this close examination, he and his colleagues have designed a predictive pattern-recognition system that can probe a vast database of every known wildlife disease. Across the thousands of bacteria, parasites and viruses known to science, this system identifies clues buried in the number and type of species they infect. It uses those clues to highlight which ones pose most of a threat to humans.
If a pathogen is flagged as a priority, scientists say they could direct research efforts into finding preventions or treatments before any outbreak happens.
“It will be another step altogether to find out which diseases could cause a pandemic, but we are making progress with this first step,” Professor Baylis said.
Many scientists agree that our behaviour - particularly deforestation and our encroachment on diverse wildlife habitats - is helping diseases to spread from animals into humans more frequently.
University College London Professor Kate Jones said, “The studies broadly suggest that human-transformed ecosystems with lower biodiversity, such as agricultural or plantation landscapes, are often associated with increased human risk of many infections.”
“So biodiversity loss can create landscapes that increase risky human-wildlife contact and increase the chances of certain viruses, bacteria and parasites spilling over into people.” There are certain outbreaks that have demonstrated this risk at the ‘interfaces’ between human activity and wildlife with devastating clarity.
Farms on the edge of forests, markets where animals are bought and sold - all are blurred boundaries between humans and wildlife, and places where diseases are more likely to emerge.
“We need to be constantly on the look-out at these interfaces and have systems in place to respond if we see anything unusual”, like a sudden disease outbreak in a particular location. A