Of course, finding the deadly microbes that are still in hiding, or identifying which of the obscure or exotic pathogens that we already know about may pose a threat, is no mean feat. What can be done to hunt them down? And how can we tell which ones could really take off? Earlier this year, scientists from Johns Hopkins University published a report which aimed to answer these pressing questions.
Why is influenza at the top of the list? Why did we not think about Zika, before ? And why did we not think about West Nile in the United States? Hantaviruses are usually spread when rodents come into contact with people, who contract it via urine, saliva and droppings Credit: Alamy. At the core of the research was the idea that pandemic pathogens are fundamentally weird. Out of millions of viruses on the planet, very few have ever caused a major outbreak. Together with his colleagues, Adalja identified the unusual combination of features that allowed them to do this.
First of all, pandemic pathogens are almost all viruses. This is partly because of their sheer abundance and ubiquity. They are the most numerous biological entities, stalking every ecosystem and invading every type of organism. They can traverse continents and cascade down from the sky in their trillions every day; there are about million viruses on every square metre of the planet. But it also includes lesser-known threats, such as Enterovirus 68 — a rare relative of polio with a taste for babies, children and teenagers. It was only discovered in the winter of , when four children were struck down with pneumonia in California.
No one is suggesting that this particular virus is going to suddenly start killing millions of people, but it does satisfy all the criteria — including the final condition that it can infect the respiratory tract. After laying low in the US population, largely undetected, for several decades, Enterovirus 68 has recently been on the increase. It was linked to an outbreak of a mysterious, polio-like disorder which sprung up in the Midwest of the US in and killed four people, including a year old girl.
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