Duke researchers working to prevent the next pandemic

Buckley Report

DURHAM, N.C. (WGHP) — Just as we feel we’re getting past this current COVID-19 pandemic, we learn the next one is probably trying to emerge somewhere around the world.

“There are probably many of these coronaviruses that are spilling over, they’re probably just not causing a lot of human-to-human transmissions yet,” Duke infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Greg Gray said. “But, now they are certainly on our radar.”

Duke has teams in several key locations around the world, including Sri Lanka and Vietnam, hoping to find the next virus that could break out.

“I have to say, finding a live virus in the air is really challenging, and few have done that,” said Gray, about what his team has to do.

Even when they do, they don’t know that it will be a virus that will be able to become heavily transmissible in humans.

“It’s not like some of the Hollywood movies where a virus in Indonesia moves over from pigs – or bats to pigs and humans – in a span of 15 minutes,” Gray said.

But the key is finding them early, still infecting animals.

“We look for viruses that are not known to infect humans in humans – for instance, pneumonia patient specimens,” Gray said. “And, when we find one, that’s an alarm. We want to then go back and figure out where it came from and how often it’s creating illness in other people in that area.”

And, if they don’t catch it before it becomes transmissible in humans…

“An outbreak somewhere is an outbreak everywhere in the current world with all the travel that we have,” said Dr. Gayani Tillekeratne, another MD and researcher who is part of Gray’s team. “Once we actually develop vaccines or drugs, controlling it in one part of the world is not enough. Because, what we see is that with these new variants which you may have heard about, that’s basically mutations in the virus, which is a very natural process but we see variants occur when there are replications of the virus and that will happen in places where we’re not vaccinating people and, ultimately, we may run into variants that vaccines are no longer working on.”

Despite all the great work at places such as Duke, these researchers warn that this is a battle that will last beyond our lifetimes.

“I don’t ever think we’ll ever be in a world where there are no, new infections that are emerging,” Tillekeratne said. “That being said, just in what we’ve witnessed in the last year, we have a lot of really great tools, a lot of really great people working on trying to, one, prevent the next one from emerging, to being able to detect it rapidly, to three, being able to develop new vaccines.”

But the key is staying ahead of the breakout.

“Unfortunately, the last two pandemics have been from viruses we didn’t have good attention on – the 2009 H1N1 and this pandemic,” Gray said. “So, I would argue that we should do a better job at looking at these novel viruses early before they become highly transmissible.”

Hear more on where these viral pandemics begin in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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