When will we be ready for the next pandemic? Studying the past may give us a hint.
Writer: Marie Maeland
Editor: Daniel Jacobson
Artist: Patrick Marenda
“Wear your mask!”
“Sanitise your hands!”
“Most importantly, “Stay at home!”
Warnings such as these were everywhere and pictures were either taken mid-chaos or in the eerie, deserted lockdowns. Soon, the time period we are living through will be looked back on by future generations. The details of this and past pandemics will be studied by students and researchers to help establish ways to identify, test and prevent the spread of disease.
Pandemics have become a more immediate threat due to global warming and the ease of travel. Increasing global temperatures are a mechanism for viruses to spill over from animal reservoirs to humans. Additionally, augmenting travel for leisure, including tourism, facilitates the international spread of pandemics. An advantage of past pandemics was lower rates of international travel as less visitors would introduce the pandemic to unaffected areas. However, once a pandemic began spreading in a region, the lack of biological knowledge and unorganized responses resulted in a vast magnitude of deaths that are likely preventable today.
The most fatal pandemic in history was the Black Plague, when the Yersinia pestis bacterium caused up to 200 million deaths. Devastating Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353, the first noticeable attempt at quarantining and isolating the infected took place, especially amongst seamen, as it was understood that proximity played a role in transmission despite lacking any biological understanding of contagion. Different methods, such as pleasant scents, were proposed to help fend off the infectious agent. However, these techniques were broadly unsuccessful, even though some did raise the communities’ spirits.
The viral pandemic of smallpox also caused widespread illness, identified by bulging red spots covering the body. In 1796, Jenner discovered the inoculating abilities of cowpox in order to cause immunity against smallpox. This development vastly improved our response to pandemics, and was vital for the success story of eradicating smallpox in 1980 via the creation of a vaccine.
Another key reference point for our own handling of COVID-19 was the Spanish Flu pandemic, which peaked between 1918 and 1920 and was caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. A unique characteristic of this pandemic was a high mortality rate in the young, especially in 20-40 year olds, with the average age of death being 28 years. The lack of vaccines and antiviral drugs as treatment options elevated the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions including quarantine, personal hygiene, and restriction on social gatherings. Anyhow, their uneven implementation intensified the devastation caused and demonstrated the importance of global communication.
These three pandemics are unified by the fact that the viruses are believed to have spread from an animal species to humans, making them zoonotic. Interestingly, despite different environmental threats and variable technological abilities, the attempts that each population took to contain the virus were curiously similar. Potentially, demonstrating that the return to simple human behaviour plays a significant role in combating new viral threats as this works as a buffer, allowing scientific research to catch up.
In 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused by a coronavirus originated in the Guangdong province of China, and, thereafter, infected 29 countries. Collectively the coronavirus strains have become infamous and gained universal attention. Nevertheless, the outbreak in 2002 wasn’t labelled a pandemic and wasn’t enough to prepare the world for the new SARS-CoV-2 strain. Anti-transmission techniques are still developing, and were clearly helpful for the COVID-19 responses of South Eastern countries as their citizens complied more with restrictions due to personal experiences with the SARS 2002.
With the lockdown of COVID-19 taking a heavy toll on everyone’s daily lives, there are definitely many stories and statistics that will contribute to building the historical image of 2020 and 2021. When will COVID-19 be in the history books? How often will such a situation arise in the near future? What can we learn from this pandemic which can improve our response next time?
The particularly interesting development of viral genomics is at the epicentre of trying to answer these questions. Analysing viral RNA of known pandemics could reveal viruses that have a high mutation rate likely to become infectious to humans and shed light on how pathogens have evolved over time. High-throughput sequencing technologies will compete against the growing pace of emerging viruses threatening public health. The efforts to protect the world from an overloaded health care system are highly dependent on learning from pandemics in our past and continuing to reinforce the power of research in the field. We certainly have the resources to foresee virological disasters. The bigger question is if we will have the time to do it before the next pandemic hits.