Future Pandemics and what we can do about them

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The Black Death, the Great Plague, the Cholera pandemic, the Russian flu and the Spanish flu are some of the names that reminds us of the horrors of the past.  These events demonstrate how we as a society failed at controlling the disease whenever pandemics have struck us, leading to a significant wiping off of the population. Modern medicine convinced us that pandemics on such a scale are improbable in today’s world. A few variants of SARS that came could hardly affect more than a continent and the rate  of transmission as well as that of death were very low. 

The Coronavirus pandemic changed it all for us. Now we realise the need to understand pandemics better in order to inhibit processes that might lead to another as well as be ready if it hits us in the future. 

A large number of infections demonstrating in the humans originate in the animals. They follow a set path before they can infect humans: 

  • The virus originates in the animal kingdom
  • Transmits to domesticated animals or those living in close proximity to humans
  • Interspecies transmission to humans
  • Local spread or epidemic
  • Global spread or pandemic

At any given point of time there are innumerable deadly viruses existing in the animal kingdom whose transmission to the human sphere can prove to be fatal for mankind. In fact, on the scale of fatality, Covid-19 stood quite low with mortality rate of 1-3% ,and it still ended up creating the biggest rupture in the modern times.

The role of humans:

While it may seem that humans do not have a role to play in the transmission of a virus to their kind, studies suggest otherwise. After identifying global level determinants of pandemics, researchers have come to the conclusion that future pandemics are most likely to emerge from ecological processes of climate change, loss of biodiversity; social processes kick-started by corporate interests, evolving human culture, globalisation; and population growth. These processes affect the very nature of interactions between humans, animals and the environment. Once the balance that needs to be maintained is disturbed, we see unforeseen results, and a deadly new disease could very well be one of them!

How to avoid them

In the Middle Ages when pandemics hit the human society, people could only speculate what lead to them. The lack of technology and knowledge of science prevented them from verifying the sources. Today, we are equipped with technology and resources that no other civilisation in human history had. We are capable of tracking a disease right up to its origin and know what could have possibly started it. 

Thankfully for humans, the ways to prevent future pandemics are embedded in sustainable living. Addressing the issues of poorly planned urbanisation, population explosion, climate change, deforestation, all align with SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). What is needed is a global consensus on them and collective action.

Can we gear up for them?

However, even after all the preventive measures, we should be realistic and accept that there is a lot that remains beyond human control. Pandemics will hit us again in the future, sooner or later. What can we then do? The current pandemic gave us invaluable lessons:

  • Revamp the healthcare – We saw during the pandemic how the healthcare system of even the most advanced nations collapsed. It is pertinent that we remodel it, make it robust with technology and resources and include basic nursing and healthcare in school education so that every citizen can come handy in desperate times.
  • Continuous research in anti-biotics – The R&D in anti-bodies are expensive and give very low returns. As a result, the pharmaceutical companies invest very little in this sector. So, when the time came, we were short of knowledge as well as availability of antibodies that could work. A lesson needs to be learnt from here and we collectively need to fund research in the area.
  • Contribute towards the Global Virome Project – The Global Virome project aims at identifying all animal viruses that could pose a threat to humans. As of present, there are 1.6 million unknown mammal viruses that could easily mutate to humans. Such a research would be key in tracing viruses to their origin and locating anti-bodies. We need to fund and encourage such projects. 

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