Learning lessons from previous pandemics

What shape should measures take to prevent future pandemics?
28 June 2022

Interview with 

Vincent Racaniello, Columbia University


Covid19 virus


Of course, the most relevant example of an emerging viral infection at the moment is Covid-19, which has cost trillions. This means it’s also served as a wake-up call and also as a learning opportunity to put in place better safeguards to try to reduce the risks of this happening again. So what shape should those measures take? With us is virologist Vincent Racaniello, from Columbia University...

Vincent - In my view, there's one main takeaway and that is we were caught totally unprepared and we need to do better surveillance to know what viruses are out there, poised to be the next pandemic. We just can't afford to be surprised like we were with Covid. Covid Itself tells us that we can do this surveillance; we are surveilling humans, we are surveilling sewage, we are surveilling all sorts of animals so we can know exactly when and where the new variants are. We do a great job doing surveillance for influenza virus as you just heard. We can do that for other viruses, but we barely do it. Take the polio detection in sewage in the UK - we don't even look in sewers in the US for polio virus. And so the threat is out there in animals. It's mainly in mammals because the viruses of mammals are the ones most likely to infect us. The most numerous mammals are bats and rodents, and our surveillance of them is minimal. We need to know what's out there. First of all, we need to know all the viruses that are in those animals in bats and in rodents. We need to know where they are. And then we need to do a surveillance program akin to the ones we do for influenza viruses and COVID. And we need to know what's out there. We need to know at the interface of these animals and people what viruses are circulating. And we have to look in people as well. We have to have some kind of surveillance programme where we look at, say, people who are at the interface with bats in the countryside, people who are at the interface with rodents, and we need to know what travel is doing to these viruses. We have nothing of this sort. And that's really the lesson I hope we learned from the COVID pandemic.

Julia - And we're seeing these increased numbers of cases of monkeypox now. So if we were more widely surveying different viruses and different animals, do you think these cases we're seeing now could have been prevented?

Vincent - It depends on how extensive the surveillance is. Right at the moment, our surveillance of monkeypox is really nonexistent. And we're only looking now because we have cases, but we don't even know which rodents are harbouring this. There's very little wildlife sampling for monkeypox and we need to do that. There's no routine sampling at travel locations. So if we could do that, we would've known, "Oh, look, suddenly there's circulation of monkeypox virus and maybe we should look out for it before we have the first cases." So, the answer is, if it's done properly then yes, we could have anticipated this particular outbreak.

Julia - And this goes beyond just surveying these different viruses. There's also problems accessing data in different countries. So are the ways that we can solve some of the political problems that also contribute to new viral infections emerging?

Vincent - Well, that's the big problem, right? Because politics supplies the money to do all of this research. And so the data that we generate has to be shared by everyone. It would help to have laboratories in many countries generating this data instead of sending samples, say, from Central Africa to the UK and the US. Make laboratories in those locations. Immediately put the data on servers so that everyone could access it. The money to do this is the problem, right? This is going to cost a lot of money and inevitably politicians will say, well, what really is the risk of the next pandemic? And do I have to spend 10 billion a year to find that out? I don't know how to get around the political issues because I'm a scientist and that's all I know.

Julia - And as a final question, a lot of these infections arise in countries with less resource. So is there a way that we can equip these countries to be better at surveillance?

Vincent - Yes, I do think so. The lesson comes from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2015, where many individuals set up the technology locally in order to do viral genome sequences, rather than shipping out the samples elsewhere, they set up laboratories, they taught local individuals how to do the work, and they generated the data and they made the local people able to do it. That's what we need. We need to bring the technology elsewhere. We don't want to parachute in and out. We want to bring the technology to them. So I think it can be done. And that outbreak showed that it could be done.


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