Opinion: How do we prevent the next pandemic?

Written by Marie Lilly

Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, many brilliant scientists predicted that the next pandemic would be a respiratory virus spilled over from a bat reservoir host to humans. Bats are uniquely good reservoirs for viruses in part because of their ability to fly. Flight requires a high metabolism which in turn gives them a heightened immune system allowing them to tolerate viruses better than many other mammalian species. Bats and other animal species—along with their disease transmission cycles—have been studied for decades. Yet when COVID-19 emerged, most of the world floundered to stop the spread of the virus and we miserably failed at preventing a widespread global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an interesting unsolved problem to reach the public eye. How do we prevent pathogen spillover events between zoonotic animal hosts and humans? And when they do occur, how do we stop them? A large body of research exists aiming to address this question in a variety of disease system contexts. Nevertheless, I am left wondering how we can effectively use this information to enact change and why we were unable to with COVID-19.

I believe that part of this problem is because much of the previous research in this field has overlooked social phenomena that influence the ecology of emerging diseases. Humans are part of the natural environment yet we so often consider ourselves as separate. What if we considered humans, our cityscapes, and our behavior as part of the natural ecosystem?

Many environmental conditions in which pathogens thrive are created by social phenomena. For example, our reliance on a capitalist economic structure requires certain laborers to work long hours in close proximity—great for pathogen transmission. Additionally, the inequality we see in access to healthcare forces many people to continue their daily routine without being able to seek treatment for communicable diseases. Lastly, we are social creatures with a human desire for physical contact, community gatherings, and so on. These phenomena (and more not listed here) must be further incorporated into the research of emerging infectious diseases to mitigate and prevent future disease outbreaks.

Image source: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-ecology-of-disease.html