Re-thinking virology: It seems we are living in a pandemic era, but what to do and what to think?
Monkey pox, avian influenza spreading in Europe, Langya henipavirus infections in people in China, polioviruses in sewage waters, yet another variant of COVID-19…
The news on emerging or re-emerging viruses are more and more frequent these days. It seems we are living in a pandemic era, but what to do and what to think about that?
Most of the novel viruses are zoonotic – transmitted originally from animals to people. These transmission events called spillover are probably more common than we have realized or had tools to diagnose.
We people are changing the environment and come to contact with wildlife more often than before and these encounters may lead to spillover. Luckily, these events are usually dead-end for the viruses, and viruses are only rarely able to evolve and spread from one person to another.
Wildlife full of viruses
Efficient transmission is even more rare. But as we have learned from COVID-19, that possibility exists for some of the viruses and the consequences can be devastating.
Is there anything we can do?
COVID-19 is here to stay and the virus keeps evolving as it is still in the process of adapting to people. And should we get prepared to battle yet other Disease X pathogens? The wildlife is full of viruses, known and unknown, and as of now, we are not really able to predict which ones have the potential to cross species barriers and cause disease in people.
Yes, there is actually a lot we can do, starting from learning from COVID-19. For me as a virologist, the first lesson is that we have ignored the significance of aerosol transmission. A lot needs to be studied further on how different viruses spread, but we already know that all the recent pandemic viruses are able to transmit via air and cause respiratory infections.
E3 is working hard on the matter
In the E3 project we study virus transmission routes, their relative importance and factors influencing the efficiency of virus transmission ranging from individual level characteristics and biology of the virus to the physical environment. And that is the lesson number two.
The wicked problem of pandemics is simply too big to be solved by one field of science. We need to work together across disciplines and scientists together with the industry and public health authorities to find the timely solutions – and this is the essence of the E3-project.
Finally, we should also note the third lesson – the health of the people is tightly linked with the health of the environment and the animals. This is One Health, and this approach is needed in all decision-making to mitigate health risks, including disease emergence and pandemics.
Tarja Sironen, University of Helsinki
Helsinki One Health