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Why are there so many viruses coming out now?

From the great smallpox epidemic of 2022 to the evolution of bird flu and Marburg virus in Equatorial Guinea, Covid is no longer dominating the headlines.

Instead, we regularly hear about outbreaks of emerging or re-emerging viruses.

So, are virus outbreaks increasing? Or have we become better at detecting outbreaks because of the technology that has evolved during the Covid pandemic? The answer may be a little of both.

There are currently an estimated 1.67 million unidentified viruses that infect mammals and birds. Of these, as many as 827,000 viruses are believed to have the potential to infect humans.

To understand how viruses originated, we have to go back to the beginning of life on Earth. There are many theories about how the first viruses appeared, but they all agree that viruses have existed for billions of years and evolved alongside living things. And when there is a disturbance in this stable co-evolution, we can have problems.

The main reasons for the appearance of viruses in people are in people and their actions. Agriculture became common over 10,000 years ago, and at the same time, humans began to have closer contact with animals. This provided an opportunity for humans to “jump type” viruses that naturally infect these animals. This is called zoonosis. About 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases are caused by zoonotic diseases.

With the advancement of human civilization and technology, the destruction of animal habitats has forced them to move to new areas in search of food sources. Different species that don’t normally interact today shared the same environment. Add humans to that equation and you have the perfect recipe for a new virus to emerge.

Urbanization leads to high population density, which creates an ideal environment for the spread of viruses. The rapid development of towns and cities often outpaces adequate infrastructure such as sanitation and health care, increasing the potential for the spread of the virus.

Climate change also helps the spread of viruses. For example, arboviruses (viruses spread by arthropods such as mosquitoes) are being discovered in new regions as the range of countries where mosquitoes can live is increasing.

We have known these factors for a long time. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 did not surprise any virologist or epidemiologist. It is not a matter of when a pandemic will happen, but when it will happen. What was unexpected was the scale of the Covid pandemic and the difficulty of effectively containing the spread of the virus.

We also did not estimate the impact of misinformation on other areas of public health. In particular, opposition to vaccination has become more prevalent on social media in recent years, and we are seeing rising rates of reluctance to get vaccinated.

Routine vaccination programs for children have also been disrupted, increasing the risk of epidemics of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles.

Science has advanced at an unprecedented pace during the Covid pandemic, which has led to the development of new and improved virus detection methods to track the spread and evolution of the virus. Now, many of the scientists involved in tracking SARS-CoV-2 have turned their attention to tracking other viruses as well.

For example, wastewater monitoring is widely used to detect SARS-CoV-2 during pandemics and may also help monitor other viruses that pose a threat to human health.

When a person is infected with a virus, some of that virus’s genetic material is usually flushed down the toilet. Wastewater has the ability to show if the number of infections in an area is increasing, often before the number of cases in hospitals begins to increase.

Adapting this technology to look for other viruses such as influenza, measles, and even polio could give us valuable data on the timing of virus outbreaks. To some extent this is already happening – for example, in 2022 the polio virus was detected in the sewers of London.

This increased viral surveillance will naturally lead to more viral outbreaks being reported. While some people may see this as scary, information like this could be key to containing future epidemics. If an outbreak occurs in an area with inadequate virus surveillance, the infection is likely to spread uncontrollably.

But surveillance is only one part of pandemic preparedness. Governments and health and scientific institutions around the world need to (regularly update) the emergence of viruses and current pandemic protocols so that we do not struggle to interpret a situation too late.

And it’s unlikely that Covid will be the last pandemic for many alive today. Hopefully we’ll be better prepared next time.

The report was prepared by Lindsey Broadbent, Professor of Virology at the University of Surrey.

Source: ScienceAlert

Source: Arabic RT

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