by Professor Dr Ulf Dittmer, Director of the Institute for Virology, University Medicine Essen, University of Duisburg-Essen
Viruses are very small pathogens that cannot be seen without significant magnification. However, modern borders do not stop these small pathogens from traveling around the world causing massive damage to human health and economies. We are currently still in a worldwide Sars-CoV-2 pandemic, a new coronavirus that was very likely transmitted from an animal reservoir to humans somewhere in China. From the original small outbreak, it took the virus only 3 months to spread to almost every place on earth. This illustrates that it is very difficult or maybe even impossible to stop a virus from spreading in our highly international and interconnected world.
We can only slow down the spread
This is true for viruses that travel in infected humans but even more for viruses that are circulated geographically by animals, like migrating birds or mosquitos. Lessons from the swine flu H1N1 influenza virus and the current coronavirus pandemic tell us that we can only slow down but not stop the global spread with containment measures, maybe with the exception of a few island states. However, containment measures are still important because the healthcare system in many countries is unable to handle many severely ill patients at one time and science needs a reasonable timespan to develop novel therapeutics and vaccines against newly emerging viruses. The current pandemic indicates that measures like social distancing and facemasks are effective in slowing the spread of a respiratory virus, but that it may be difficult to convince societies to adhere to these restrictions.
Another important lesson from Covid-19 is that each country needs to stockpile personal protection equipment for the workers in their healthcare system. We already knew from the West African Ebola outbreak that healthcare workers are at high risk of contracting infections and that this can result in a complete collapse of the healthcare system. However, there was still not enough protection equipment in several countries in the beginning of the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic, since the supply relies too much on the production in Asia.
Field virology and platform technologies
We have also learned a very important scientific lesson from the current pandemic. We need to know more about the viruses that are in animal reservoirs and that have the potential to cross the species barrier to infect humans. To get this information, we need to do field virology and study animal viruses in more detail. This is the idea of “One Health”, which suggests that we have to intensively study infectious diseases in animals to better protect human health. Such studies have to be performed in international science networks, because the current pandemic indicates that viral animal reservoirs in Asia can also become very important for Europeans or Americans. With the knowledge from these studies, we will be able to better prepare the world’s science system in academia and industry to rapidly respond to new pathogen challenges.
We need platform technologies that can be used to develop drugs and vaccines against newly emerging viruses within a very short time span. We can create many measures, but only a protective vaccine taken by enough people will be able to completely stop a viral pandemic. Covid-19 shows that we already have some powerful vaccine platforms at hand and that science and industry is able to develop promising vaccine candidates within only a few months. We have to expand on these technologies using the knowledge from field virology to prepare for the next dangerous virus to come. We also have to convince our societies that vaccination is not dangerous, but very likely an important prerequisite for future human health in this globalised and highly interconnected world.