HIV, SARS, Swine flu, Ebola, Zika — what’s next?

After being the world’s worst pandemics, these viruses have now become household names. Their deadly outbreaks have had devastating effects on communities across the globe, compromising the health and economic well-being of millions. The rise of HIV, first identified in 1976, has proven to be the most destructive pandemic, killing 35 million people since 1981 and infecting more than 70 million people. The CDC estimates that in the first year of circulation alone, the 2009 H1N1 virus was responsible for between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths worldwide. More recently, the appearance Ebola in West Africa was the largest outbreak of the virus seen in history, with a total of 11,310 deaths recorded in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The sharp increase the number of viral outbreaks in recent decades can largely be attributed to the explosion in global population, as well as increases in crop and animal production. Most of these deadly viruses are zoonotic, meaning that they can be transmitted from animals to humans. Zoonotic viruses have the greatest potential to give rise to the world’s next pandemic. Increased travel, settlement expansion, and interaction with livestock are all key factors that are make humans susceptible to infection by zoonotic diseases.

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Map showing mammalian diversity. Since viral diversity is closely linked to mammalian diversity, studying the location of various mammals enables geographic targeting of viruses.

Mammalian Diversity Map: C. Rondinini et al. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B. 2012

Current Issues We Face

Unfortunately, countermeasures taken by the public health community are often ineffective as they are almost always enacted after the threat emerges. As a result, the rapid spread of emerging viruses typically outpaces the ability of vaccines and various therapeutics to mitigate the effects.

This global unpreparedness and the inability to predict future epidemics is primarily caused by the limited knowledge of potential viral threats. Currently, scientists know that there are about 263 viruses from 25 viral families which infect humans; however, this represents only 0.1% of the viruses which researchers think could potentially infect humans. The most recent viral analysis has predicted that there are roughly 1.67 million undiscovered viral species in various birds and mammals, and out of these unknown viruses, between 631,000 and 827,000 are expected to have zoonotic potential. Health officials have no way of combating undiscovered viruses, and given the rising rate of zoonotic viruses infecting humans, these hundreds of thousands of unknown viruses pose incredible pandemic risks.

Global Virome Project

Identifying viral threats is the most important step to understanding how to most effectively combat them. In 2018, an international collaboration, known as the Global Virome Project, was launched with precisely this mission. It aims to identify viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to infect humans, and plans to do so by studying animals in regions that are breeding grounds for emerging viruses. The $1.2 billion project hopes to identify almost all of the global virome within the next 10 years. The information gathered during the project will be accessible to scientists around the world, with the hopes of better preparation for the next outbreak.

Currently, scientists know that there are about 263 viruses from 25 viral families which infect humans; however, this represents only 0.1% of the viruses which researchers think could potentially infect humans.

The Global Virome Project will enable new and innovative preventative measures, especially in the development of vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and other therapies. Researchers will closely monitor viral activity in animal populations to determine which have the potential to spillover and infect humans. This includes mapping out the geographic scope of the viromes, as well as identifying which hosts they have the potential to invade. Additionally, the movement of viruses will be under close surveillance, and common transmission features of high-risk viruses will be identified. This newfound knowledge will allow the global community to create new therapies before the threat has even reached the human population. Since this is a global collaboration, a system for sharing the data and information collected will be in place so that scientists can work together to efficiently produce results.

Impact of the Global Virome Project

The potential of this initiative is limitless, as it will not only revolutionize response to viral threats, but also produce advances in countless other areas in global health. In addition to the development of novel therapeutics, characterizing the range of Earth’s viromes will allow for the production of new biotechnologies that can be used in a variety of fields. Similar to the Human Genome Project, the Global Virome Project is expected to result in unexpected scientific insights beyond what it intends to accomplish.

Ultimately, international support for the Global Virome Project will enable a more efficient, streamlined, and unified response to viral threats. If successful, the global community will be able to effectively handle the consequences of viral spillover from animals to humans, which has become increasingly deadly in recent years. Populations that are particularly vulnerable will also be identified and given heightened protection, which will help stop the rapid spread of viral infection. Completion of the Global Virome Project will hopefully be the beginning of the end of the Pandemic Era.

About The Author

Aishwarya Kalyanaraman