scientists are looking for the next (possible) pandemic

In mid-December 2020, seven farm workers in southern Russia started having flu symptoms. It is true that the farm in question, a facility with more than 900,000 birds, had suffered a huge outbreak of a very specific strain of this disease, N5H8, but it is also true that until that moment a case of this strain had never been detected in humans. What was so strange about a handful of flu cases in Russia in the middle of December?

The only strange thing was, precisely, 2020. A year in which, thanks to the health measures deployed against COVID-19, the flu had reached historical lows. Therefore, the Russian authorities wondered if it was a coincidence or was there something else behind these cases. In February 2021, they made public that there was indeed something else: the first reported human case of a flu strain that has been causing continuous outbreaks for years in wild birds and putting the poultry industry in much of the world in check.

It must be quickly clarified that the symptoms caused by the strain were mild and that, despite the problems that it is capable of displaying in animals, N5H8 continues to have enormous difficulties jumping into humans (and moving among them). However, it seemed clear that these seven cases were a dangerous precedent for what could be to come. So much so that today Science magazine puts it black on white: “the emerging viruses of this strain they are a serious public health problem“.

What we don’t know about the next pandemic and what we have learned from it

There is no lack of arguments on the table. In 2017, the outbreaks began to diminish until almost disappearing, motivating a wave of optimism that exploded when During 2020 there was a truly spectacular boom that has affected 46 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, including Spain (with three outbreaks of wild birds in Cantabria, Zamora and Gerona).

That this ‘boom’ coincided with the first cases in humans, something that had not happened despite the very high exposures of veterinarians and workers of farms and slaughterhouses, set off all the alarms. And now Weifeng Shi and George Gao, two experts from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in China and the University of Shandong, point out that vigilant surveillance and rigorous infection control measures for these emerging viruses are essential to avoid new pandemics.

After all, “the rapid worldwide spread of this strain and its (already demonstrated) ability to cross the species barrier, transmitting to humans, makes it a major concern not only for agriculture and farm safety. wildlife, but also for global public health. ” It is not necessary to remember that, as we have been pointing out for years, the main threats do not come from new and unknown viruses, but come mainly from relatively well-known elements that we can monitor.

So the question is to what extent has the world learned from the mistakes of a year ago and to what extent the relative return to normality will also be a return to health approaches that, as we have seen, leave us exposed to epidemic diseases that, as far as we know, are going to become more and more frequent. The ‘era of epidemics’ has no expiration date, are we preparing for it?

Image | Brian McGowan

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