Intense surveillance of viruses at the human-animal interface urged

The challenge ahead is identifying viruses likely to cause problems for humans before they occur. Image: mattthewafflecat from Pixabay, CC0

The human-animal interface should be targeted for rigorous viral surveillance in a bid to prevent future pandemics, according to researchers.

The observation that most of the viruses that cause humans disease come from other animals has led some researchers to attempt “zoonotic risk prediction” – that is, to second-guess the next virus to affect us.

However, in an essay published today in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers propose that these zoonotic risk predictions are of limited value and will not tell us which virus will cause the next pandemic.

Instead, we should target the human-animal interface for intense viral surveillance, according to Dr Michelle Wille at the University of Sydney, who co-authored the essay with Jemma Geoghegan and Edward Holmes.

Zoonotic viruses have caused epidemics and pandemics in humans for centuries.

This is exactly what is occurring today with the Covid-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus responsible for this disease – SARS-CoV-2 – emerged from an animal species, although exactly which is uncertain.

A key question is whether we can predict which animal or which virus group will most likely cause the next pandemic.

This led researchers to attempt to determine which virus families and host groups are most likely to carry potential zoonotic and/or pandemic viruses.

Wille and her colleagues identify several key problems with zoonotic risk prediction attempts.

First, they are based on tiny data sets. Despite decades of work, we have probably identified less than 0.001% of all viruses, even from the mammalian species from which the next pandemic virus will likely emerge.

Second, the information gathered is highly biased towards those viruses that most infect humans or agricultural animals, or are already known to be zoonotic. The reality is that most animals have not been surveyed for viruses, and that viruses evolve so quickly that any such surveys will soon be out of date and so of limited value.

The authors instead argue that a new approach is needed, involving the extensive sampling of animals and humans at the places where they interact – the animal-human interface.

This will enable novel viruses to be detected as soon as they appear in humans and before they establish pandemics. Such enhanced surveillance may help us prevent something like Covid-19 ever happening again.

How accurately can we assess zoonotic risk?  Wille M, Geoghegan JL, Holmes EC (2021) PLoS Biol 19(4): e3001135.

The essay, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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