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More viruses will jump from animals to people, researchers say. Can we catch them?

Jonathan Wosen, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

The novel coronavirus isn't the first virus to jump from animals to people and wreak havoc.

HIV. Ebola. Swine flu. Bird flu. SARS. MERS.

The list goes on, and it's going to grow longer.

In an essay published Thursday in the journal Science, an international team led by San Diego Zoo Global researchers calls for scientists and wildlife experts to routinely test animals for viruses in open-air markets that sell fresh meat, fish and produce (wet markets), wildlife farms and other potential disease hot spots.

The genetic sequences of these viruses would be added to a common database for scientists to monitor and learn from. The idea is to go from simply reacting to outbreaks to anticipating them, and to shift from centralized monitoring efforts to local surveillance on a global scale.

"Human interactions with wildlife are fundamental to the public's health," said San Diego Zoo Global conservation geneticist Mrinalini Watsa. "The aim of the (article) was to reduce the risk of future pandemics by raising awareness internationally of the need and opportunity for modern wildlife disease surveillance approaches."

 

COVID-19, which has infected more than 12 million and killed more than a half-million people worldwide, has underscored the value of such approaches. And a report earlier this week from the United Nations said experts expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead as habitats are ravaged by wildlife exploitation, unsustainable farming practices and climate change.

TEST EARLY, TEST OFTEN

To test wildlife for a virus, researchers often rely on certified laboratories. But about 60% of these labs are in Europe and North America, far from where most new infectious diseases appear. That's not ideal, says Watsa, the article's lead author.

"How do you get a sample across the Andes Mountains when you need to freeze it?" Watsa said. "Just making your lab closer to where you sample solves a lot of those problems."

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