In the mid-1300s, the plague killed as much as one-third of Europe’s population.
Today, we are faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2019, a novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China. By March 11 of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. A year later, more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide have been attributed to infection of the new viral strain and over 113 million cases have been confirmed in the lab.
It appears that throughout history, humans can’t quite escape the grasp of pathogens.
In the late 1400s and early 1700s, European nations brought devastation to the Native American populations in the form of smallpox, influenza, and measles. By some estimates, as much as 90% of the Native American population were killed by various introduced diseases.
Multiple threats lurk
“Black Fungus” has been making rounds in the news lately, in the midst of India’s bout with COVID-19. In patients with impaired immune systems, the fungi spread rapidly, causing fever and lesions in the soft tissue. The infection has a mortality rate of over 50%.
Fungi are also becoming superbugs, i.e. pathogens that have evolved to resist typical treatments. Candida auris is a fungus that is classified as a serious global health threat by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and one that can hide within a hospital, meaning that vast numbers of patients within a hospital could be exposed to it.
Superbugs are rapidly becoming one of the most prolific pathogenic threats.
In a 2019 report, the CDC recorded that there were 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant (AR)-caused illnesses in the US alone, leading to more than 35,000 deaths. Diseases once considered all but conquered thanks to the triumph of antibiotics are now making a comeback.
Tuberculosis, which has long been treated with antibiotics, has developed AR strains that are immune to the most powerful medications available. As many as 10% of TB infections in Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Russia and China are now antibiotic-resistant.
And the next great pandemic could come from animals. In fact, coronaviruses are generally thought to have originated in bat species. Zoonoses are pathogens that originated in animals that “jump” onto humans. The World Health Organization estimates that around 61% of all human diseases are zoonoses.
Poxviruses are a prime example of this: chickenpox, one of the most well-known childrens’ illnesses, actually originated in chickens.
While much has been learned about SARS-CoV-2 in a short space of time, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how the virus may evolve.
While the approval of several vaccines for COVID-19 has sparked hope that the end of the pandemic may be approaching, the vaccine will not be the end of the COVID-19 story. There is the chance of the virus evolving and evading the protection of the vaccine. Therefore, the future will likely heavily depend on how governments manage restrictions on social behavior.
Our effect on the climate, encroachment on wildlife habitats and global travel have helped circulate animal-borne diseases. Combined with urbanization, overpopulation and global trade, we’ve set up an ideal scenario for more pandemics to come.
From Mers-carrying camels in Africa to the pigs with influenza in Europe, meet the animals and the diseases with the biggest pandemic potential.
Bats in Asia
Nipah virus is one of the World Health Organization’s top 10 priority diseases they believe could cause a pandemic. There’s no vaccination, it’s highly deadly, and there have already been a number of outbreaks in Asia. Read how Nipah could be the next pandemic.
Mosquitoes in North America
Each year, mosquito-borne diseases kill nearly one million people and infect some 700 million or about 1 out of every 10 people on Earth. Scientists at the US military base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have discovered a dangerous mosquito that could soon spread Zika and other dangerous diseases across North America. Read the insect that is bringing disease to new areas.
Camels in Africa
Mers is a coronavirus far deadlier than Covid-19. It’s spread by camels, which millions of people in Africa and the Middle East reply upon for milk and meat. Read how camels are carrying Mers.
Pigs in Europe
The pig pandemic is upon us. The 2009 outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu, might have spurred reforms to factory farms worldwide. But today, farmers in Europe are not required to vaccinate themselves nor their herds, or to report the disease if they discover it. Read on why swine flu is still with us.
Monkeys in South America
Although there is a yellow fever vaccine, the disease infects some 200,000 people and kills 30,000 of them each year – more than terrorist attacks and plane crashes combined. As humans encroach onto Brazil’s forests, outbreaks are on the rise. Read on why yellow fever remains a threat.
Possums in Australia
The Buruli ulcer originated in Uganda and in recent years has found its way to Australia. Classified as a “neglected” international disease, it has little money or research behind it. Read on the flesh-eating disease carried by possums.
Watch the video on how we can stop the next pandemic.
Investing in pandemic research
On March 10, 2021, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) launched a $3.5 billion plan to reduce the risk of future pandemics and epidemics.
Launched in 2017, CEPI is a global partnership aimed at developing vaccines to tackle future epidemics. Last year, CEPI made investments in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, including the mRNA vaccine by Moderna and the chimpanzee adenovirus-vectored vaccine by Oxford-AstraZeneca.
At the end of March, as part of its new strategy, CEPI issued a $200 million call for proposals for the development of vaccines against new emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 and variants of concern.
One of the big moonshot ideas in CEPI’s plan is to compress vaccine development timelines to 100 days.
CEPI also wants to produce a library of prototype vaccines against representative pathogens from critical viral families. CEPI was working with AstraZeneca on a MERS-CoV vaccine before the pandemic hit and already had some good idea about the appropriate antigen to be used.