Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

February 25, 2020

Evolving Viruses: What Does the Future Hold?

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As disease-wary stock markets tumble, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has continued to see global death tolls rise — rapidly spreading from its Wuhan roots to gain a foothold in countries as diverse as Italy and Iran.

But virus outbreaks are nothing new: in just the past 10 years, the world has been plagued with the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 and a resurgence of the Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016 — and it seems like such epidemics will continue for years to come.

Which begs the question, can scientists predict if, and when, we will see another new virus strike within the next several years?

But despite advancements in virus detection technology, according to Prof. Roy Gulick, medicine, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Weill Cornell, it is often difficult to predict when and how often such outbreaks will occur.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that viruses cannot be singularly categorized — instead, representing a wide range of illnesses, which vary considerably in both symptoms and manner of transmission.

However, the medical community is increasingly equipped with more advanced technology that can more quickly discover new viruses, though challenges still loom.

“We’re much better at discovering, tracking, and characterizing new viruses,” Gulick said. “Given that we have much better tools today to analyze these [viruses], we’re going to continue to discover more viruses and microorganisms and that will help us do genetic analyses and develop vaccines and medications.”

For instance, a new virus, Yaravirus brasiliensis, which was discovered at the end of January in Brazil, is a testament to the gap in knowledge in the world of viruses.

Over 90 percent of the virus’ genome has never been seen in other organisms, and bears no resemblance to any genome cataloged in over 8,500 publicly available metagenomes, genetic samples recovered from the environment.

In fact, the virus is so foriegn it actually represents an entirely new group of viruses — based on current classification protocols, the Yaravirus would not even be considered a virus.

The novel virus does not cause human disease, but its exact effects still remain unknown.

“For a virus to cause diseases in humans, it has to be able to recognize a cell and target that cell,” Gulick said. “Different viruses target different cells in the body… the cold and flu virus tend to target cells of the upper airways, nose, mouth, and the throat.”

Another reason that makes viruses so difficult to track and contain is the vast variety in the way they are transmitted.

For instance, some viruses, like the common cold, spread through nasal or oral secretions that are passed from one individual to another through contact, while others, like measles, can spread through mere proximity, moving through coughs or sneezes near others.

In a type of illness Gulick called “zoonosis,” humans can contract viruses not only from other humans, but animals as well, such as in the case of SARS.

The occurrence and severity of outbreaks, Gulick explained, depends on which of these modes of transmission a virus uses to spread. This, in turn, affects what preventative measures are recommended by healthcare professionals to halt a virus’ contagion.

“Typically, around cold and flu season, we remind people to wash [their] hands frequently,” Gulick said. “If someone is admitted to the hospital for measles, we put a mask over them and anybody entering their rooms so that measles is not transmitted through the air from one person to another.”

While the nature of the next viral outbreak is uncertain, significant medical advancements, such as vaccines, have improved the treatment of viruses and the state of public health as a whole, according to Gulick.

“We’re much better, particularly in the last five years, about being able to develop vaccines in a rapid way,” Gulick said.

Vaccines are not available for all viral ailments, but advancements in antivirals have significantly improved treatments for viral infections within the past few decades, Gulick said. Gulick explained that antivirals are commonly used for influenza and Hepatitis C.

Overall, the trend of new virus outbreaks doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, but preventive measures are crucial for avoiding infection.