Fighting Future Pandemics

The world will face more pandemics in future. By learning from the past and thinking about the future, we can get ready to fight it.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The current situation with the Covid19 (SARS-CoV-2) virus reveals that pandemics can and will occur. It is not the first time as we will show in a brief analysis of the past. A brief look at today's signals and drivers will tell that it will not be the last time. The question is, what can we learn from the past and present, which technologies can support the fight of pandemics and diseases in the future.

The aim of this article is a short analysis. If the desire is here, a follow-up article can be published. 

Brief Past Analysis

200'000 years ago, when homo sapiens roamed the country in small groups of roughly 25 as a hunter-gatherer, new pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites) had a hard time establishing themselves in the human population. This changed after the first humans began settling down 10'000 years ago and started with cattle breeding. The close contact with farm animals and other people in settlements and cities encouraged the transfer of pathogens from animals to humans and human to human. 

Most of the modern diseases such as the Swine Flu, Ebola or our current threat, the Coronavirus Covid19, all have their roots in animals, so-called zoonotic diseases. A zoonosis is an infectious disease caused by a pathogen that has jumped from non-human animals (usually vertebrates) over to humans (Source).

If we are looking closer into our past, pandemics killed around 400 Million over the last 2000 years (Source). Roughly 370 Million died before the year 1920, where the world population was approximately 2 Billion (Source). Many deaths for this population number. Definitively the worst pandemics have been the Black Death (200M deaths), Smallpox (56M), Spanish Flu (40-50M), Plaque of Justinian (30-50M) and HIV/Aids (25-35M). Since my birth, in the year 1985, the most critical new pandemics have been the Swine Flu (200K) and Covid19 (135K, by the time of writing, ongoing). 

Graphic by Visual Capitalist

Graphic by Our World In Data

Possible reasons, why some viruses and bacteria did not spread over the whole planet and killed millions of people, is because of the small "basic reproduction number R0", which indicates the expected number of cases directly generated by one infected like MERS (0.3-0.8). Quick identification of the disease, rapid isolation of infected people and for sure, a portion of luck as well. Another reason is that our society is much more developed, planes support the exchange of goods, the internet admits it to exchange information more rapidly and share it with the masses. The healthcare today is way better than it was back than and the understanding of diseases, search and development of vaccines is much faster. 

Yes, the whole analysis is more complicated than said here, but I wanted to keep it simple. 

Containment Measures

  • Social Distancing

  • Banning Public Gatherings

  • Closing Schools, Restaurants, and Businesses

  • Isolation and Quarantine

Brief Present Analysis

Today we can see some drivers which are showing that a future pandemic is inevitable, similar as there were signals which indicated the Covid19 outbreak. The question is not if it will occur again, but rather when! We can also identify drivers today, which can help fight the pandemic more efficient in future if we are applying it and learning from mistakes.

Covid19 (SARS-CoV-2)

December 2019, Chinese health officials reported to WHO several patients with new and mysterious pneumonia. Since then, the virus spread across the globe and infected until now more than 2 million people and caused more than 120'000 deaths. This quick spreading of the virus showed two things, the world, or most of the world was not ready and underestimated the virus—even countries which identified pandemics as high risk, like Switzerland in 2015 (Source). 

Containment Measures

  • Social Distancing

  • Banning Public Gatherings

  • Closing Schools, Restaurants, and Businesses

  • Isolation and Quarantine

  • Contact Tracing

Social distancing is an effective way of stopping or slowing down the spreading of diseases. If we are not getting close to each other, the virus has a lower chance to jump from one person to another. Another effective way is to isolate and quarantine infected people and all who got in contact with the person with contact tracing. 

Zoonotic Diseases

As mentioned above already, zoonoses are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. We are getting in touch with animals almost everywhere on this planet. Diseases from animals can, as we have seen, spread from animals to humans and cause severe threats (Source).

Climate Change

Climate change has, to all other implications to the world, at least two that could increase the chance of pandemics. Global warming is melting the ice at the north and south pole as well as glaciers around the world. 

The melting ice will release ancient pathogens, locked away for thousands of years (Source). Some bacterias developed already resistance against antibiotics, even not come in contact with people or the antibiotic drugs used to treat human infections (Source). These ancient pathogens could cause if humans get infected, new epidemics and pandemics. Another one is that animals are relocating due to climate change and thus bringing new viruses to places they weren't before.

Research Institutes

Institutes around the globe are studying pathogens to understand them better and find new cures for these diseases. They are creating or modifying it and creating a synthetic version of it, sometimes even more dangerous as the natural one. One side of this research makes sense because we will understand the diseases better, and it will help find vaccines and drugs. On the other hand, it will be a massive threat to humanity if we can make synthetic viruses which are more dangerous than the natural one. What if it finds their way out of the lab, or it gets used by a terrorist organisation (Source)?

Travel

Since the year 1950, world tourism is increasing. In the year 1950, we counted 25 million tourist arrivals, 2018, 68 years later, 1.4 billion (Source). The more people are travelling, the higher the chance of spreading diseases all over the world. 

Graphic by Our World In Data

Urbanisation

Today, more than 55% of the world lives in urban areas (Source). The closer people are living together and sharing the same locations, the higher the chance of spreading diseases in the metropolitan area. 

Graphic by Our World In Data

Meat Consumption

Meat consumption and production are on the rise. From the year 1961 to 2016, the meat production rose six-fold. Thus, we can also see that consumption rose. Especially, meat consumption tends to increase as we get richer (Source). The more meat we consume and produce, the more we are in contact with animals, the higher the chance that a new pathogen will hop over to humans and cause a new disease. 

Graphic by Our World In Data

Graphic by Our World In Data

Science & Technology

The below scientific research and technologies may be used in future to fight diseases and stop them from spreading. 

CRISPR Method

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)—is a genetic engineering technique in molecular biology to modify genomes of living organisms (Source). You can think of it like a pair of scissors programmed to scan a journal and cut out specific words, and you can even replace it with another one if you like. Researchers found that they can also modify RNA and not just DNA. This finding is beneficial because a virus like the SARS-Cov-2 has RNA and not DNA. Even, this technique is in their early phase, but as we know, technology is exponential, and it might be that we get this technology sooner than we think.

Antiviral Materials

Researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Geneva and the EPFL in Lausanne developed a new antiviral material made from sugar. Current antiviral drugs work by inhibiting virus growth, but they are not always reliable as viruses can mutate and become resistant to these treatments. Modified sugar molecules can destroy viruses on contact and may help in the fight against viral outbreaks. The researchers show promise for the treatment of herpes simplex (cold sore virus), respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis C, HIV, and Zika virus, to name a few (Source).

Universal Flu Vaccine

The seasonal flu vaccine has some drawbacks; every year, the vaccine needs adaption to the characteristics of the flu, which is lengthy and expensive. Even midseason, the virus can mutate, which makes the vaccine useless. A universal vaccine would solve some of these issues, no yearly development anymore. Flu-v may be one step closer to a universal flu vaccine (Source).  

Antiviral Textiles

Antiviral textiles inhibit the growth and persistence of bacteria and viruses. They can be applied to a broad spectrum of textile surfaces including face masks, air filters, medical gowns, curtains, drapes and more (Source). 

Sensors 

Various sensors are in development which can detect diseases much earlier and thus help fight pandemics much quicker. Biosensors which you can inject under the skin (Source) or sensors which detect a virus in urine (Source) are just two examples (Source).

Contact Tracing

In public health, contact tracing is the process of identification of persons who may have come into contact with an infected person ("contacts"). By tracing the contacts of infected individuals, testing them for infection, treating the infected and tracing their contacts in turn, public health aims to reduce infections in the population (Source). Various countries are applying techniques to trace infected people in real-time. With the help of smartphones, sensors or cameras, health organisations can identify people who have been in endangered regions or if infected people comply with the quarantine specifications (Source) and if they have permission to travel or access a building. Google and Apple are launching a joint tracing tool for iOS and Android (Source).

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence and other digital technologies are revolutionising many fields like the car industry, health, mobility or farming. 

The world is producing a huge amount of data every single day. The Internet, Social Media, Communication, IoT devices, self-driving cars, smartphones, cameras and much more are generating so much data which are waiting to be analysed.

BlueDot AI was able to forecast an outbreak and warn several days before WHO announced it. Google's DeepMind division used its algorithms to understand the Covid19 virus and their protein structures (Source). BenevolentAI and Exscientia use AI to build drugs, and now this helps to find a drug for against Covid19. Blue Ocean Robotics is using UVD Robots with their ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses autonomously. 

The list of how AI, Data Science and Technology can help fight future pandemics and diseases is much longer and would need a separate article. Still, it gives a feeling of how we might apply AI and Technology.

Bottomline

We have seen in this article, that pandemics are not a new phenomenon. Humanity had to fight many and is still struggling. It is not just the Corona outbreak. There is also an Ebola epidemic in Congo right now. It must be clear for everyone now, that due to the urbanisation, travel behaviour, climate change or the rising meat consumption, all factors which are increasing the probability of a new pandemic, it won't be the last time. Specifically, when we are combining some signals and drivers we have seen, the chances are higher and higher for another outbreak. This SARS-Cov-2 outbreak is a more significant outbreak than others in recent years because it affects the whole world, not just "local" regions. It is also crucial that we are fighting epidemics when it is also only a local outbreak. But, the world is, hopefully, for a future epidemic, better prepared than this time. We can learn from it. Key is, to act fast and support each other. 

New technologies will play for sure a massive role in the next pandemic outbreak. Contact tracing built into mobile phones will support the fight. Drug development will gain a huge step forward through AI. Digitalisation is gaining a significant momentum currently in all aspects of life, and suddenly, much quicker than anybody could have predicted. Let's keep this momentum for the future ahead, collaborate and give everyone a chance for a good and healthy life.