Using virus history to predict future pandemics

Studying virus lineage may identify future pandemic strains.


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Disease X is a term the World Health Organization uses for an unknown pathogen that could pose a significant threat. RNA viruses, like COVID-19 and measles, spread diseases and often cause epidemics. Keeping an eye on RNA viruses in animals could help identify ones that might affect humans. However, it’s challenging and costly because there are so many.

University of Edinburgh-led team traced 743 RNA virus species to study their evolution, including those infecting humans. They compared viruses spreading only from animals to humans with those spreading among humans. 

The study revealed that viruses spreading among humans usually evolve separately from strictly animal-to-human viruses. It’s found that human-transmissible viruses emerge when related viruses from the same lineage can spread among humans. However, strictly zoonotic viruses historically haven’t caused human epidemics.

Researchers suggest focusing on viruses related to known human epidemic strains to improve surveillance. Although there’s still a risk from new or animal-only viruses, this approach can narrow the search for Disease X among countless RNA viruses. The study involved Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Peking University scientists, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 and BBSRC.

Utilizing virus ancestry as a predictive tool offers a promising approach to enhancing pandemic preparedness. By identifying and monitoring viruses with evolutionary ties to known human epidemic strains, researchers can better anticipate and mitigate the risks of future pandemics. This study underscores the importance of proactive surveillance strategies in global health security.

Journal reference:

  1. Lu Lu, Feifei Zhang, et al., Temporal Dynamics, Discovery, and Emergence of Human-Transmissible RNA Viruses. Molecular Biology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msad272.


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