What will the next global pandemic look like?

Creator of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine warns that future viruses could be more contagious and lethal

(Image credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images))

One of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has warned that future pandemics could be more lethal than Covid-19, which has killed more than five million people worldwide.

Delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Dame Sarah Gilbert called for more funding for pandemic preparedness, as “this will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods”, reported the BBC.

She added: “The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”

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Professor Gilbert’s warning has raised the question of what the next global pandemic will look like, something experts have been considering for some time. The “perpetrators” of the next pandemic will “likely come from the coronavirus or influenza families”, declared Andy Plump, a co-founder of the Covid R&D Alliance, earlier this year.

Writing for Stat, he added that “other possible culprits include flaviviruses such as the West Nile virus, filoviruses such as the Ebola virus, and alphaviruses known to associate with a number of human encephalitis diseases”.

Examining the pathogens that currently pose the greatest pandemic threat, Gavi identified the Nipah virus, which can kill as many as three out of four people it infects, and Marburg, a “deadly cousin of Ebola” that can kill nine out of ten people who catch it.

Meanwhile, many experts put antibiotic-resistant infections at the top of their list of worries for the next crisis. Priya Nori, medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told Infection Control Today: “We’re greatly concerned that we’ll see emergence of lots of multidrug-resistant bacteria and fungi.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes that not enough is being done to prepare for the next pandemic, noted The Independent. In a report, the charity challenged nations to invest long-term in healthcare systems as well as calling for a reduction in vaccine and resource inequalities between wealthy and low-income nations.

“It seems obvious that in a globalised world, where people and goods move constantly across borders, it’s insufficient for rich countries to be the only ones with the equipment and resources to sequence viruses,” the charity argued.

When leading global health officials recently met to negotiate a way of ensuring that a crisis on the scale of the Covid pandemic won’t happen again, there was talk of a pandemic pact.

A legally binding pandemic treaty that would dictate how nations should respond to future outbreaks was “initially on the table”, reported Nature, but a “fuzzier form of that proposal is now moving forward” to be “sharpened in the months and years to come”.

The special session of the World Health Assembly, which was held in Geneva, Switzerland, agreed to collectively develop an accord, agreement or other “instrument” to govern the global pandemic response, including ensuring the equitable distribution of diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. There are also calls for nations to change how buildings are ventilated.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic reported that good ideas might also come from smaller communities “for whom ‘normal’ was something to survive, not revert to”. For instance, Puerto Ricans, who “face multiple daily crises including violence, poverty, power outages, and storms”, have built support networks and mutual-aid systems to take care of each other, it added. These could help form a blueprint for local co-operation when the next pandemic hits.

This could happen sooner than you think. While Covid is often described as being a “once in a lifetime” or “once in a century” pandemic, modelling shows that the frequency and severity of spillover infectious disease – directly from animals to humans – is steadily increasing, said the Center for Global Development.

With 500,000 animal viruses with spillover potential to humans in existence, the prospect of a new pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease seems disturbingly close at hand. What most people seem to agree on is that the way out of the next one will be more co-operation, on both a global and community level.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.