Virus Hunt Zooms In To Focus on New Potential Pandemics

Intentional pandemic preparedness requires understanding which viral threats have pandemic potential.
Sep 15, 2023 10:00 AM ET
A person in white lab coat looking in a microscope

The naked eye can only detect a few thousand stars in a clear sky despite the presence of around 200 sextillion stars in the universe. If you pity the astronomer who has to deal with a number as large as that, think about the job of a virus hunter trying to stop new potential pandemics.

Similar to the ratio of stars to visible stars, only a small fraction of the approximately 10 nonillion existing viruses on our planet actually poses a threat to humans. The key to being a good virus hunter, then, is not just identifying them but determining which viruses have the power to infect humans, become an outbreak or even turn into an epidemic or pandemic.

Fortunately, more than a few good virus hunters are on the case.

Members of the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition have recently contributed to two studies that involve the scrutinization of a virus to establish whether it has the potential to become an outbreak. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at how the Coalition decides if these viruses are not a cause for concern, or if they should stay on our radar.

Bangui Virus: An Ancient Virus, Found Again

While discovering an ancient virus seems like the start to a new TV series, a new study, published in the Virus Evolution journal and supported by the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition, had a more anticlimactic ending.

As part of the Coalition’s viral surveillance work, Abbott scientists trained in metagenomics and next-generation sequencing assembled the genome of what they believed to be a novel bunyavirus from a person in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The team used this cutting-edge technology as well as compared the sample to specimens collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and here’s what we know:

Because of this, researchers in the study found that this ancient mosquito-vectored virus is likely not a cause for concern. Phew.

Astrovirus: A Stomach Bug, Increasing in Severity

In contrast, the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition has recognized that a different virus and its mutation may pose a threat to our health.

Astroviruses were first discovered in humans around 50 years ago and are known to infect hosts like cats, dogs, cattle, deer and pigs. The virus typically presents in humans in the same way as the stomach flu, causing gastroenteritis and symptoms like muscle weakness and loss of balance.

Similar to COVID-19, there are different variations of the astrovirus, and Abbott researchers found a strain of the virus in a person with a fever that belonged to a genotype (MastV-Sp6Gt7) reported to cause neurological disease.

The findings, which were recently published in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections, determined that this variant of astrovirus was different from the strain that has co-evolved with humans for thousands of years.

In the study, researchers determined that the MastV-Sp6Gt7:

  • Has been quickly spreading across the globe in the last 20 years
  • Mutates at a higher rate than other astroviruses
  • Causes severe neurologic disease in the immunocompromised

Because of this, researchers believe this variant is one we should proactively monitor, highlighting the need for diagnostics capable of detecting it.

Global Detectives for Pandemic Preparedness

Determining which viral threats could turn into new potential pandemics improves the likelihood of us being prepared for the next outbreak. By examining characteristics of different viruses — such as evolution, transmission and mutation rates — we can determine which pathogens need priority tracking, response and reactive diagnostic technology.

We can’t count every virus. But, with a team uniquely equipped to face this challenge, we can count on being well-prepared to fight the next viral outbreak.