VIENNA — Wondering what the next SARS or Zika-like disease heading our way might be? At a conference this past weekend in the Austrian capital, a leading researcher made some predictions.
Kevin Olival, the associate vice president for research at the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, used a formula that takes into account the number of animal species a virus can infect and the number of vectors — think types of mosquitoes or ticks — that can transmit it.
Looking at flaviviruses — the family that includes Zika, dengue and yellow fever — Olival rhymed off the top three on his “ones to watch” list at the International Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance.
They are hardly household names — the Usutu, Ilheus and Louping ill viruses. All three have on rare occasions infected people, but they also infect a number of other animal species, which suggests they may have what it takes to jump species. Virologists sometimes call viruses that can do this “promiscuous.”
That means “it’s more flexible in its ability to infect across hosts, including mammals,” Olival said.
Usutu has recently caused bird die-offs in Europe, and Louping ill has sickened domestic goats in Spain. Like Zika before them, these three have been little studied.
Scarce science funds are rarely committed to investigating things that so far haven’t caused problems. But Zika may have changed that thinking, Olival said.
“Every time there’s a new emerging disease … that hits us by surprise, it makes policymakers and funders wake up,” he told STAT.
The research that points to Usutu, Ilheus, and Louping ill is part of a growing movement to try to figure out what might cause future disease outbreaks before spread ignites, so that the world can develop vaccines or drugs with which to respond.
“The goal being to predict the next Zika — and that’s a lofty goal. But we believe it’s possible,” Olival said.
The good news? Olival and his colleagues at EcoHealth Alliance think Phnom Penh bat virus isn’t much of a threat to break out in people any time soon.