Climate change, international travel, and a growing global population are all among the factors scientists are citing for the increased likelihood of a severe pandemic occurring again within the next decade.
London-based disease forecasting company Airfinity’s latest risk modeling suggests that there is a 27.5% chance that a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 could occur by 2033.
Since its outbreak in 2020, coronavirus has claimed more than a million lives in the U.S. with more than 102 million cases confirmed, according to the WHO.
The new research out of Airfinity suggests that viruses are emerging more frequently due to a combination of factors such as increasing international travel and populations, as well as climate change and an “increasing threat posed by zoonotic diseases.”
Zoonotic diseases are those which can transmit from animals to humans, like avian flu.
Bird flu has been known to make the leap to humans, first occurring in 1997 and recently killed an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Cambodia after both she and her father were infected.
In a worst-case scenario, Airfinity suggested that an outbreak of avian flu transmittable to humans could kill as many as 15,000 people in the U.K. every day.
Airfinity’s conclusions are based on 150,000 simulations modeling various potential pathogens, which range in infectiousness, starting outbreak size, the population of the country of outbreak, and case fatality rate.
There is good news
The modeling company found that if lessons from the coronavirus pandemic are taken on board, the risk of another comparative pandemic can be reduced by as much as 71%.
Key to the reduction is a set of “counterbalances,” Airfinity said, such as a fast vaccine rollout, strong delivery infrastructures, and other “pandemic preparedness strategies.”
Vaccines in particular are paramount, the predictions showed, since if a jab can be rolled out within 100 days of the discovery of pathogen, the likelihood of a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 in the next decade drops from 27.5% to 8.1%.
The 100-day race
The understanding of vaccines has rapidly improved because of the pandemic, with teams at the U.K.’s University of Oxford building on COVID vaccination technology to create a possible cancer treatment.
However, the global health community would need to act far faster to meet the 100-day deadline than they did with COVID-19.
The COVID pathogen was first reported in December 2019 whereas the first approved vaccine—the PfizerBioNTech vaccine in the U.K.—was not first administered until December 2020.
Airfinity points out that a handful of high-risk diseases like Zika and Marburg—which has broken out in two African nations in the past few months—don’t currently have approved vaccines, adding it believes “existing surveillance policies are unlikely to detect a new pandemic before it is too late.”
“A robust pandemic preparedness system is the world’s insurance against a COVID-19-like pandemic or something even worse,” said Rasmus Bech Hansen, Airfinity’s CEO and cofounder.
“We have calculated the real risks, but also the potential risk reduction that can be achieved. This can help inform decision-makers to the level of ongoing pre-emptive investment in the space to keep people safe.”
‘Far better prepared’
Professor Paul Hunter is a U.K.-based expert in the epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases, who believes the public is much better protected should an emerging deadly pathogen be identified.
He highlighted key differences between coronavirus and other infectious diseases: “The first is asymptomatic transmission,” he explained.
“With COVID people could transmit the virus very early on into their infection. With the SARS outbreak in 2003, people became infectious when they already had severe symptoms, often they were already in hospital.
“We thought COVID would be the same as SARS when actually, people could be transmitting the disease with no symptoms at all.”
The second difference Hunter highlighted was the length of immunity people get after contracting coronavirus, which is estimated to be around five months.
People who battle viruses like smallpox, measles, or polio have immunity for years, or even for the rest of their lives.
Hunter also believes the global health community now has the skills and capability to rapidly produce vaccines in the far of a new deadly pathogen, adding that delays in rollouts often come down to proving new vaccines are safe and effective.
Although it could slow the timeline in the face of an outbreak, Hunter reiterated that these formalities are paramount to making sure the vaccine not only is useful, but won’t make the situation any worse.