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WHO Consults Scientists Over Pathogens with Pandemic Potential

One Health PACT coordinator, prof. Marion Koopmans addresses the WHO consultation 

The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a series of consultations with the scientific community in the beginning of 2024 aimed at building consensus about how best to identify and address the pathogens most likely to cause epidemics and pandemics.

The first consultation kicked off on January 9 2024, with some of the world’s top scientists addressing how to develop a scientific framework for epidemics and pandemics.

Hosted by the WHO’s Research and Development (R&D) Blueprint, it is one of four planned consultations to be held over the next few weeks as the WHO prepares to release an updated list of priority pathogens that pose epidemic and pandemic threats.

The priority pathogen list was last updated in 2018 and the WHO has indicated that it will publish a new list in the first half of this year.

Since November 2022, the WHO has focused on entire classes of viruses or bacteria rather than individual pathogens that pose threats in a process chaired by US virologist Dr Barney Graham from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

“Over 200 scientists from 53 countries are independently evaluating the evidence related to 30 viral families, one core group of bacteria, and “Pathogen X” – an unknown pathogen with the potential to trigger a severe global epidemic,” according to WHO. 


Rapid research to stop outbreaks

British virologist Dr Peter Daszak offered a view from the field, showing how rapid research could prevent outbreaks.

Daszak’s team has identified a virus with similar properties to SARS CoV2 in caves in China frequented by bats and humans collecting their faeces to fertilise their crops.

“Here we have a virus in bats right now in a cave that’s used by people who are highly exposed to faeces and this is a virus that shed in bat faeces,” said Daszak.

“It has real potential for emergence. But the good news is, because we could do serological assays and we have a lot of access to human sera from the region, we know that most people in the region have either had COVID or have been vaccinated and that will provide really good protection, we think against this virus.”

By encouraging people to wear PPE and working with them to understand the risks, the scientists and local health authorities could reduce the potential for this virus to spill over, he added.

“If we target our surveillance, if we use the right technological approaches, we can discover really interesting and important new evidence of potential spillover of pathogens and do something about it, try and prevent that from becoming an outbreak,” concluded Daszak.

Bringing research and public health together

Renowned Dutch virologist Dr Marion Koopmans told the meeting that “the evolving global pathogen surveillance network” offered a huge opportunity for collaboration on “building surveillance and sequencing capacity for the common pathogens”.

However, she added that every region has its own pathogen hotspots and priorities.

“We need sampling designed that bears in mind the likely disease emergence scenario in each region. Do I want to be able to detect it pre-emergence, for instance, for vector-borne diseases going forward… or do I want to develop it into an early warning surveillance including, for instance, wastewater surveillance,” said Koopmans.

“The opportunities are there, the tools are there. They need to be further developed for routine implementation and that to me is the next step. What that requires in terms of collaboration is much closer connection between the more research type work in clinical settings and public health settings, rather than setting up separate data and sample collection studies for emerging diseases,” she added.

Date: 11 January 2024