Outbreak: The Next Pandemic

Our scientists are asked all the time, “What is the next pandemic?” It’s a fair question, though it is absolutely not one with a simple answer.

The World Health Organization maintains and regularly revises an R&D Blueprint list of priority diseases. EcoHealth Alliance scientists are among the experts who consult on the list’s revisions. We’ve seen in recent years the devastation many of the new and emerging diseases on the list–Ebola, Zika, SARS, and Nipah, for instance–can cause. That list is a good start:

  • Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever
  • Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease
  • Lassa fever
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
  • Nipah and henipaviral diseases
  • Rift Valley fever
  • Zika

But knowing what the threat is isn’t necessarily enough to stop it. And that’s where our work begins. Our hotspots map of global pandemic risk identifies parts of the world in which zoonotic disease is most likely to spillover from animals to humans. We’re conducting biosurveillance in nearly 30 countries worldwide so that we can know which viruses are circulating within wildlife populations and where. And we’re developing software which can use artificial intelligence to monitor and read millions of scientific reports and alert us when people start falling sick, before an outbreak spreads.

Dr. Kevin Olival releases a bat
Dr. Kevin Olival releases a bat

This is how we’re standing between you and the next pandemic.

Disease X

There is one final disease on the WHO’s list and it’s likely the most tricky of all: Disease X. Disease X is not real, at least in the way that the others on WHO’s R&D Blueprint list are. It’s a name we use as a stand-in for any number of the world’s 1.67 million unknown viruses.

Unknown viruses have been wreaking havoc since the beginning of human history. SARS was an unknown virus before it went pandemic in the early part of the 21st century. H1N1 was an unknown flu strain before it went pandemic in 1918. HIV, too, was completely unheard of before it became the pandemic of our time. All viruses were unknown at some point, and most–the ones harmful to our health, at least–were only identified when they started killing people.

That’s why it’s EcoHealth Alliance’s mission to make sure we’re not flying completely blind.

EcoHealth Alliance's Hotspots Map of Global Pandemic Risk
EcoHealth Alliance’s Hotspots Map of Global Pandemic Risk

The Global Virome Project

Using our hotspots analysis like a treasure map, work begins this year on the Global Virome Project. Its mission is to discover, identify, and study the vast majority of the world’s unknown viruses within the next 10 years. If it sounds crazy, you’re not the first to think so, but it’s also completely doable. Our scientists have determined that, of the 1.67 million unknown viruses in the world, between 631,000 and 827,000 have the ability to infect people.

Now, thanks to the fieldwork and research of EcoHealth Alliance scientists, we know how many viruses we’re looking for, where they’re likely to be found, and in which wildlife hosts they’re most likely to reside. Suddenly a wild goose chase begins to look like an achievable mission.

In a paper published recently by Science, the Global Virome Project’s architects, including EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak, laid out their plan. In just 10 years, the team estimated they can locate 71 percent of the 1.67 million undiscovered viruses. The price tag for this–$1.2 billion–may seem steep, but compare it to the cost of recent outbreaks: $10 billion for Ebola, $30 billion for the H5N1 flu, $30-$50 billion for SARS, $45-$55 billion for the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Standing Between You and the Next Pandemic

Our vision is a world without pandemics. Without Ebola, Zika, influenza, or Disease X. We dream of a world in which people live more in concert with the plants and animals around them. It’s achievable: through science, hard work, and your support.