Coronavirus nervousness has spread throughout the world.
As a disease ecologist, Peter Daszak has dedicated himself to studying how viruses emerge that are suddenly public health problems in the world. And he is convinced that there is something wrong in the way of facing risks such as the one that the coronavirus poses today.
In his opinion, it is necessary to prevent the outbreak of major epidemics instead of reacting to each one after it arises: “It would save us a lot of money and many lives,” says Daszak in an interview with BBC Mundo.RELATED
Two years ago, he and other experts warned at the World Health Organization (WHO) about the danger of a serious epidemic caused by an unknown pathogen, of animal origin and spread through several countries with a higher mortality rate than seasonal flu strains, causing global alarm.
They called it “Disease X” under a plan known as the R&D Blueprint. But Daszak believes that it could well be the covid-19 that today challenges the world, although its exact death rate is still unknown.
The following is a synthesis of the dialogue with this specialist who chairs the EcoHealth Alliance, a global scientific research organization based in New York, and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine of the United States.
Peter Daszak believes that a massive epidemic worse than the coronavirus can emerge in a few years.
Why are diseases like coronavirus becoming more frequent?
The underlying causes of emerging diseases are determined by what we do in the world, in the environment near wildlife. Most wild animals carry viruses, and some of them can infect us and become lethal.
As we make more contact with wildlife in our daily activities, such as road construction, forest clearing, wildlife trade or agriculture, we are exposed to these viruses.
We do it on an exponentially growing scale on the planet due to the increase in population and our ecological footprint. That is why we see more diseases.
Can you recall some examples of other dangerous diseases caused by viruses for which there is still no vaccine?
A good example is HIV, a really big virus, which has killed millions of people around the world. We have working medications, but no vaccines.
This virus originated in chimpanzees, it passed to people who hunted chimpanzees to get meat from wild animals, something that was done for millennia in African countries. But with so much population growth, global travel and commerce networks, the virus emerges, spreads and becomes a global problem.
Ebola is a virus originated in wildlife. Nipah is a bat virus like SARS: we still don’t have vaccines available for them that we can use.
And there also has to be a market, because it costs a few billion dollars to develop a vaccine; If nobody is going to buy it and use it, the industry will not support development.
The bags have been affected by the epidemic.
So we need to look at the issue in the longer term. If pandemics are on the rise, if they are caused by our activities, and we cannot trust vaccines, we must start thinking about preventing them from happening in the first place. It would save us a lot of money and many lives.
How do you suggest doing so?
In our group, EcoHealth Alliance, we have worked in China for 15 years, from the SARS. And we find that SARS originated from bats.
We looked for other viruses that could arise from bats and we found around 500 coronaviruses in bats. Some of them are very close to SARS and we know that they can infect human cells in the laboratory. 25,000 pigs died three years ago from a coronavirus originated in bats in southern China.
It is really not effective to develop a vaccine against SARS 15 years ago, when the next one to appear could be different and the vaccine will not work. And we are seeing that right now.
We have to think about the universal vaccine, a vaccine that works against all coronavirus strains, against all Ebola viruses, all flu viruses. Work is currently underway to develop a universal influenza vaccine. We should now do this for coronaviruses.
How close are we to h aving a “universal vaccine” against flu and diseases like coronavirus?
Are you saying you’re dealing with the problem the wrong way?
Yes, and this is not the fault of politicians or scientists … We all think the same way. I do it too and we got used to it.
When we go to the doctor, he gives us a pill and fixes a disease, or we receive a vaccine and stops a virus. But we can’t count on that for every completely new virus. We need to prevent it.
A good analogy is if I go to the doctor and say: “I am overweight, I am eating fatty foods and I have heart disease.” The doctor does not tell me: “Don’t worry, keep doing what you are doing and when you have a heart attack we will give you a pill.”
The doctor says: “Eat less, healthier, exercise more and avoid heart attack.” That is what we have to do, that is public health. We have to try to prevent these pandemics before they arise.
What is the main obstacle to finding a universal vaccine like the one you are referring to?
One obstacle is that we still don’t know all the viruses that exist. We estimate that there are probably 1.7 million unknown viruses that could infect people in wildlife. We know only a couple thousand. So we must go out and find those viruses, get the genetic sequence, and start working on the vaccines for the entire group, rather than just one.
The second obstacle is the willingness to do this, because it costs money to implement programs, find viruses and develop vaccines.
This covid-19 outbreak will eventually end. We need to start beating the next one, and we must not forget how chaotic it is and how much impact this outbreak has on our economies and human lives.
The search for a universal vaccine “will be a great job,” says Daszak
Is it really feasible to include all viral families in a single project, when we talk about 1.7 million unknown viruses?
It will be a great, great job. We have calculated the cost, we published the article about two years ago. You don’t have to discover all viruses. We estimate that we could discover 70% of these unknown viruses at a cost of approximately $ 1.2 billion.
Now, that would require countries around the world to work together and fund different projects. It is expensive, but compared to the cost of an outbreak it is tiny. We estimate that this outbreak has already cost more than 100 billion dollars …
On the other hand, finding viruses is not enough. Then you have to determine what may be threats, which involves more research, and then develop vaccines.
We are talking about a coordinated effort by many countries to finance programs to prevent pandemics. And really put it as a high priority. Because if they are going to be more frequent, this may not be the worst, that in a few years we will see a worse one that has a significant impact on the planet.
Why hasn’t this been done yet?
A couple of things happen. One is that we have a collective amnesia: we forget the pandemics after they happen. And among pandemics we think: “Why are these people so worried about these viruses? It is very unlikely …”.
Pandemics are rare events, but they are so devastating that we must take them more seriously.
Second, only now do we really have the technology to do this job profitably, to get out and sequence viruses in a much cheaper way than before.
And we are just beginning to understand how to develop the universal vaccine. Now is the time to do it. We know that not long ago we had the Zika virus, and not long before we had Ebola, and before H1N1, which affected Mexico a lot and also spread throughout the world in three weeks.
Do you notice any signs that you are turning towards the approach you suggest?
I am cautiously optimistic. It is good to see such a comprehensive response. China is doing politically dramatic things, such as canceling trips during the Lunar New Year or closing the wildlife trade. We have global cooperation around WHO, countries work together to overcome a pandemic.
That is very encouraging. But we are in the middle of an outbreak. Then, we should listen to all these things. What I want to think about is two years from now and say: Did anything change after the outbreak? That’s the problem.
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