Predict the next pandemic?

The Covid-19 strikes again but already, researchers are working to determine where the next will come from. Could predicting the inevitable one day be possible?

The assistant professor in quantitative and computational ecology at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montreal, Timothée Poisot , believes this. “We need to identify the potential reservoirs of transmissible viral infections”, that is to say animals that are likely to be carriers of a virus capable of being transmitted to us.

To estimate this risk, it is necessary to start by establishing maps: where are these species and to what extent are they in contact with human populations? This is the study project that Timothée Poisot begins by combining mathematical models, artificial intelligence and ecology.

To better understand these zoonoses – diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans – researchers have drawn data from the large epidemiological inventory of human diseases listed, the GIDEON database .

In a previous study , the researcher was already interested in outbreaks of infectious diseases using machine learning, in the hope of predicting the “biogeography” of pathogens. This allowed him to test the success rate of a model that would, in theory, predict the hatching, emergence and re-emergence of pathogens. It will also be necessary to take into account the passage of humans in the areas most at risk.

“Human mobility has accelerated since the 1960s” and researchers seem to agree that an increasing number of new epidemics in the past half century is directly linked to this mobility.

Thus, bats often find themselves involved in this biogeographic equation, no doubt because of their large movements, their way of life in colonies and a high potential for virus transmission, suspects the researcher.

It will also be necessary to look at the interactions between species and their environment, for example the type of land use, the open (field) or closed (forest) environment, and even temperatures and precipitation, which can limit or favor circulation of species and contact with other animals.

Not to mention climate change, which may still change the situation by changing the distribution of species, and therefore of those carrying diseases. “Quebec does not represent a dangerous zone for the outbreak of a pandemic, on the other hand the presence of the Nile virus or recent cases of human rabies, show that rapid changes are occurring and will occur with warming”, notes Professor Poisot.

The efficiency of our health system and the lower population density as we go north, however, could partially protect us. But Covid-19 recalled that no one lives in a vacuum.

On the side of veterinarians

An interesting study but a little abstract and lacking in concrete, comments on his side the former professor of the Faculty of veterinary medicine of the University of Montreal, Daniel Martineau. “We want names of diseases and names of pathogens, to know exactly what he is talking about,” notes the expert in animal pathology.

He is also concerned about the lack of collaboration between two teams from the University of Montreal around the same subject, that of Professor Poisot and that of Hélène Carabin, of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “She is the principal investigator of the Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Health and an expert in the control of zoonoses in a global health context. And she does not know the work of Professor Poisot when they should work together. This is the great paradox of research where ultra-specialized people do not communicate. ”

Professor Martineau agrees that the more information we have on the recurrence zones of this type of disease, the more the predictive model will be able to play its role. He recalls that it is already partly possible to predict the next pandemics by drawing lessons from SARS, for example, through the 2006 report of the Director of Public Health Canada, Dr. Theresa Tham. “It clearly identified the origin of the old pandemic and announced what is happening now.”

The bat track seems promising for the new coronaviruses. “Out of 5500 known mammal species, a quarter are bats (1500) and although we know the pathogens of cows and pigs well, because we have been raising them for hundreds of years, we still have a lot to learn about interspecies transmission of wild mammals. Veterinary medicine is familiar with virus pandemics, it’s time to call on it more, ”added the researcher.

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