There is an urgent need to build a framework that can help identify likely future viral threats to human health, before the next outbreak takes the world by surprise, according to scientists.
Writing in a Perspective article in the journal Science, two virologists from the Universities of the Ohio State and Colorado, said the scientific community should invest in a four-part research framework to proactively identify animal viruses that might infect humans.
“We are continually going to be exposed to the viruses of animals. Things are never going to change if we stay on the same trajectory,” said Cody Warren, Assistant Professor of Veterinary Biosciences at The Ohio State University.
Instead of just “sequencing viruses in nature”, “experimental studies of animal viruses are going to be invaluable,” Warren said.
Along with Sara Sawyer, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, he proposed a series of experiments to assess an animal virus’s potential to infect a human.
While it can be difficult to pick an animal virus and prioritise it for further study, Warren and Sawyer suggest, to look into “repeat offender” viral families currently infecting mammals and birds.
Those include coronaviruses, orthomyxoviruses (influenza) and filoviruses (causing hemorrhagic diseases like Ebola and Marburg). In 2018, the Bombali virus — a new ebola virus — was detected in bats in Sierra Leone, but its potential to infect humans remains unknown.
And then there are arteriviruses, such as the simian hemorrhagic fever virus that exists in wild African monkeys, which Sawyer and Warren recently determined has decent potential to spill over to humans because it can replicate in human cells and subvert immune cellsa� ability to fight back.
The 2020 worldwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is still a fresh and painful memory, but Warren notes that the terrible outcomes of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 could have been much worse. The availability of vaccines within a year of that lockdown was possible only because scientists had spent decades studying coronaviruses and knew how to attack them.
“So if we invest in studying animal viruses early and understand their biology in more detail, then in the case that they were to emerge in humans later, we’d be better poised to combat them,” Warren said.