Bill Gates' 2015 Ted Talk titled "The next outbreak? We're not ready" remains as one of the most unforgettable events of the pandemic -- perhaps, simply because it showed everyone how avoidable everything could be. Following the prevention of a global outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014, Gates was warning people of a future pandemic and how the world should be well-equipped to tackle it when the time comes.
When the time came, the world wasn't ready indeed. While COVID-19 isn't over yet, the scientists are aware that this won't be the last time. In a new initiative, a massive virus survey and a public database of hundreds of viruses have been made public by researchers, which can raise awareness of viruses and help people recognize possible threats for future pandemics.
"SARS-CoV-2 is just one example of many thousands of viruses out there that have the potential to spill over from animals to humans," Zoë Grange, who led the development of SpillOver, said in a statement. "We need to not only identify, but also prioritize, viral threats with the greatest spillover risk before another devastating pandemic happens."
Stopping the spark before it catches on fire
This effort builds on a massive survey of animal viruses by a project called PREDICT. The survey was done using over a half-million samples taken from 75,000 animals, and over 700 new viruses were identified.
In the next step, 150 virology and public health experts were made to analyze 50 several possible risk factors such as the host species carrying a virus, the location in which species was found, the species' past relationships to known viruses, etc. When experts ranked the importance of each risk factor, the frequency of interactions with humans and livestock, modes of transmission, and the ability to infect numerous hosts were rated highly, Ars Technica reports.
As a result, each virus was rated on a score of 1 to 155. Out of the top-scoring viruses, all of the first dozen were already known to have infected humans. In case you're wondering, SARS-CoV-2 was just between Lassa and Ebola, which both have caused multiple outbreaks.
All of the analyzed viruses and reports are now available on the Spillover website. Not only you can take a quick look at the risks, but you can also see detailed breakdowns of each virus and data.
Starting a global conversation
While this is a drop in the ocean when you look at the 1.7 million viruses that infect mammals and birds, and the fact that we are, in terms of DNA, more viruses than genes, it still represents a step towards predicting and, hopefully, preventing the next pandemic.
"This tool is intended to start a global conversation that will allow us to go far beyond how we thought about ranking viruses in the past and allow real-time scientific collaboration to identify new threats early," study co-author Jonna Mazet, a professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said. "SpillOver can help advance our understanding of viral health threats and enable us to act to reduce the risk of spillover before pandemics can catch fire."