The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by surprise, showing how unhappy we are against leakage of zoonotic viruses. But that does not mean we did not warn. There are over 500,000 animal viruses that have the potential to spread to humans and for decades, scientists have been sounding the alarm that human activity increases the risk of overflow.
“It is very likely that future cases of SARS or similar Qur’anic viruses will come from bats and there is an increased likelihood of this happening in China.” Sounds familiar? This is the conclusion of a study published in early 2019, which was abruptly prognostic and is not the only study that comes with this type of warning.
The rest, as they say, is history. Evidence so far shows that SARS-CoV-2 is a wildlife spill, with the virus coming from bats in China. Bats feed and have many encounters with other animals, such as pangolins, badgers, pigs, and more. Eventually, the virus spread to humans.
One good thing about this pandemic is that there is now a huge amount of public support for measures to curb and prevent new epidemics – although there is a good chance this will decrease as the imminent threat subsides. With that in mind, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have released a new web application called SpillOver, which ranks hundreds of wildlife viruses because of the risk of spreading them.
“Our tool aims to classify the risks of overflows from recently discovered viruses. Unfortunately, the risk of new diseases and another epidemic and pandemic arising from human behaviors in high-risk transmission interfaces is high if we do not act now. The tool allows you to create a personalized watchlist for a specific country or type of virus, etc., so that we can be prepared for the next one and help to stop it before human victims or at least check it at source “Jonna Mazet, Professor of Disease Epidemiology and Ecology at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told ZME Science.
The ranking is based on data collected from thousands of sources, including new viruses first detected by PREDICT, a USAID project launched in 2009 and designed to assess emerging pandemic threats. Hundreds of scientists and public health experts have already contributed to the database. Crowdsourcing is still available as any scientist can add data to existing viruses or assess the risk of new viruses using the “Rank Your Virus” application in the tool.
Each of the 887 animal viruses collected at SpillOver, most of which were new to science at the time of joining, has a risk rating. Those at highest risk are known zoonotic viruses that have already spread from the wild to humans. For example, SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, ranks second among Lassa and Ebola viruses.
Why is the virus that causes COVID ranked lower than Lassa, a virus that causes hemorrhagic fever and kills only 5,000 people a year? This is because there is still a lack of basic information about SARS-CoV-2, such as the number and range of its host species, which may provide a more accurate picture of the risk of overfishing for this species of coronavirus.
“SARS-CoV-2 was not discovered until it made people sick. This is the problem we are trying to solve. “We have all the technology and scientific information we need to safely detect viruses and the dangers of transmitting them before they spread. People just need the political will to act.”
Near the top of the list, there are also recently identified viruses that have not yet spread, but which nevertheless have a higher risk of becoming zoonotic than some known viruses. Unsurprisingly, many of them are coronaviruses, including a new coronavirus temporarily named PREDICT_CoV-35, which ranks in the top 20.
They are in the process of detecting such new viruses that have not yet spread from bats or other animals to humans, but have the ability to do so so that the tool shines. By identifying the most risky viruses, experts can then conduct further research and local authorities can take urgent action to limit any possible viral leakage to humans. It is not very different from the risk assessments used by banks and insurance companies to make informed decisions. As the ongoing pandemic has tragically shown, watching other viruses like this could mean the difference between a normal life and a new pandemic – perhaps even worse.
“The greatest moments were often the most tragic – helping countries respond to more than 50 cases of mysterious diseases and terrible things like Ebola. Of course, the COVID19 pandemic was the most devastating, but it also shows the need for virus information before it spreads, which is exactly what this tool aims to help us with: Disease XSaid Mazette.
Using the open source tool, anyone can compare and contrast the viruses on the list. You can also filter viruses by certain characteristics, such as virus species, host species, and country of first detection. Hundreds of scientists have already contributed to the SpillOver database and many others are welcome to do so. The more accurate the risk assessments for each virus, the better we can prioritize efforts to reduce them.
“We designed the tool to create and develop a tracking list of new viruses that have not yet been identified as causing disease in humans, but have the potential to spread, as SARS-CoV-2 did before the pandemic began. Identifying the risks associated with new viral discoveries is vital to protecting us in the future. “So far, we can say that the best change will come if we change our behavior close to the wild and reduce the impact on wildlife habitat, in order to reduce the risk of leakage more quickly.” .
The findings were reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.