Posted on 9 March 2021
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As has been stated many times, the occurrence of pandemics like COVID-19 are not a question of if, but when. The last global pandemic to occur with a scale and death toll to surpass that of COVID took place over 100 years ago – Spanish Flu, which originated in birds, is estimated to have killed over 50 million people globally.
Unfortunately, there’s no rule to say that whatever virus causes the next pandemic will wait another 100 years before crossing over into humans from its animal hosts. Indeed, there’s no rule that says a new coronavirus deadlier and more infectious than Sars-CoV-2 couldn’t emerge within the next few years. However, understanding what animal species these viruses are likely to originate from could help us be better prepared to prevent future pandemics.
To this end, researchers at the University of Liverpool developed machine learning algorithms that may help us home in on the next coronavirus pandemic before it starts. This is achieved by calculations predicting probable species in which multiple existing coronaviruses might be brought together to recombine into a new virus, which we suspect is what may have occurred to produce Sars-CoV-2.
The algorithms predict species that can host multiple coronaviruses, and take into account factors such as how close different host species are genetically, whether they share the same habitat and food, and how compatible the coronaviruses that infect those species are.
Their results highlight a wider range of potential hosts than has previously been observed, including not just bats, but many other mammals with little in common including monkeys and camels. This information may help us better select which species to surveil in order to detect new coronaviruses before they cross over into humans. We can also use this information to minimise risk by limiting contact between certain domesticated species.
But what about other viruses? Coronaviruses recombine and cross into humans relatively often, and are currently the focus of scientific research for obvious reasons. However, the authors of this study warn that the next pandemic could come from any source, and hope that strategies similar to theirs can be developed for other pathogens.
Predicting mammalian hosts in which novel coronaviruses can be generated: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21034-5