A BRAIN-SWELLING disease 75 times more deadly than Covid could mutate to become the next pandemic killing millions, scientists have warned.
Experts told Sun Online how a number of emerging diseases could trigger another global outbreak – and this time it could be ‘The Big One’.
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Nipah has had a 70% fatality rate in previous outbreaksCredit: Reuters
The fruit bat-borne virus Nipah is a prime candidate for serious concern, they fear.
Severe brain swelling, seizures and vomiting are just some of the symptoms of this highly potent disease – which was first discovered in 1999 in Malaysia.
Outbreaks in south and south-east Asia show the virus to be extremely deadly, with a death rate of between 40 to 75%.
Covid-19’s fatality rate is around one per cent, according to Imperial College, so a Nipah pandemic would kill many more people.
It has also been named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of 16 priority pathogens for research and development due to its potential to trigger an epidemic.
And chillingly, Nipah is just one of 260 known viruses with epidemic potential.
The virus is such concern due to its long incubation period of up to 45 days, meaning people could spread for over a month before falling ill, and its ability to cross between species.
Nipah also has an exceptional high rate of mutation and there fears a strain more well adapted to human infections could spread rapidly across the the well interconnected countries of South East Asia.
And while Covid-19 has devastated the world, killing almost 2.5million people, its already been warned the next pandemic could be much worse.
Dr Melanie Saville, director of vaccine research and development at CEPI, have warned The Sun Online the world needs to be prepared for the next “big one”.
The Sun Online previously scientists grave concerns over the threat of zoonotic diseases – when infections jump from animals to humans – and the danger of them causing a pandemic every five years.
Humans clashing with nature as populations expand and habitats get pushed back is considered to be a prime driver of new diseases – and that is exactly what happened with Nipah when it first infected pig farmers in Malaysia.
Nipah is one of the viruses that could absolutely be the cause of a new pandemic
Dr Rebecca Dutch
Dr Rebecca Dutch, chair of the University of Kentucky’s department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry and a world a leader in the study of viruses, told us that although there are no current Nipah outbreaks in the world, they occur periodically and it is “extremely likely” we will see more.
She told us: “Nipah is one of the viruses that could absolutely be the cause of a new pandemic. Several things about Nipah are very concerning.
“Many other viruses in that family (like measles) transmit well between people, so there is concern that a Nipah variant with increased transmission could arise.
“The mortality rate for this virus is between 45% and 75% depending on the outbreak – so this is much higher than Covid-19. Nipah has been shown to transmit through food, as well as via contact with human or animal excretions.
“The incubation period for Nipah can be quite long, and it can be unclear if transmission can occur during this time.”
The disease is believed to have originated in bats, before being passed to humans
Pigs eating mangoes infected by bats also became carriersCredit: Alamy
As well as fruit bats, pigs have caught the disease by eating infected mangoes and have been known to pass the disease to humans.
More than one million pigs believed to be infected with the Nipah virus were slaughtered in Malaysia to prevent them from transferring it to humans.
Dr Jonathan Epstein, vice president for science and outreach at the EcoHealth Alliance, explained how they are tracking the Nipah virus and are worried about its potential.
He told us: “We know very little about the genetic variety of Nipah-related viruses in bats, and what we don’t want to happen is for a strain to emerge that is more transmissible among people.
“So far, Nipah is spread among close contact with an infected person, particularly someone with respiratory illness through droplets, and we generally don’t see large chains of transmission.
“However, given enough opportunity to spread from bats to people, and among people, a strain could emerge that is better adapted to spreading among people.
“This is a zoonotic virus knocking on the door, and we have to really work now to understand where human cases are occurring, and try to reduce opportunities for a spillover, so that it never gets the chance to adapt to humans.”
If Nipah becomes more transimissible then it will result in more deathsCredit: Reuters
Diseases on WHO’s danger list
THE WORLD Health Organisation (WHO) has a lift of priority pathogens for research due to the threat the pose of a widespread epidemic – with these being some of the biggest worries:
Ebola – Six African nations have been put on alert by WHO after Guinea declared it was suffering with another epidemic of Ebola.
The disease that has killed more than 11,000 people in the region.
It leads to a fever, headaches, muscle pain, and bleeding from the ears, eyes, nose or mouth.
SARS – The virus is believed to first emerged from bats in China, like Covid-19, triggering an epidemic in 2002 to 2004 that killed 774 people.
SARS is an airborne virus and can spread through small droplets of saliva in a similar way to Covid-19 and the flu.
MERS – A bug which is believed to have spread from bats to camels to humans in the Middle East.
It is not as infectious as SARS or COVID, but has a fatality rate of around 35%.
Rift Valley Fever – A zoonotic disease which is mainly passed to humans through infected animal blood and mosquitoes.
The most extreme forms of the virus can cause blindness, jaundice, vomiting blood and death.
And Dr Saville warned we need to be ready for the next “big one”, wherever it may come from.
She told The Sun Online: “Most crucially we shouldn’t just be looking at Nipah.
“We know that a future pandemic is inevitable, and there are many other emerging infectious diseases that are recognised as having pandemic potential.
“This includes known disease threats, like influenza, as well as new or as-of-yet identified pathogens, known as ‘Disease X’.
“With environmental changes such as climate change, habitat destruction and human encroachment into previously isolated areas, human interactions have created a fertile space for viruses to hop between species and we therefore need to be prepared for the next ‘big one’.”
Dr Saville added CEPI is looking at producing a library of prototype vaccines which could target all coronaviruses at once.
She added that they would be building on what they had learned from Covid-19 to try and eliminate the risk of a future pandemic.
World’s worst pandemics
THESE are the most deadly disease outbreaks in history – with many times the death toll than currently being unleashed by Covid.
Black Death – Somewhere between 75 and 200million people lost their lives – up to 60 per cent of the entire population of Europe – when the plague ravaged the continent from 1346 to 1353.
It was most likely passed to humans via fleas which were feeding on black rats on trade ships in the Mediterranean before spreading across Europe and North Africa.
Spanish Flu – As the world attempted to recover from the horror of the Great War in 1918, a disaster which killed twice as many people as the conflict emerged with Spanish Flu.
Somewhere between 17million and 100million people died during the pandemic which lasted until 1920 – but there is currently no consensus as to where the virus originated, although it appears to have avian genes.
Plague of Justinian – Believed to be the same bacteria responsible for the Black Death, the plague ravaged Europe and West Asia killing between 15milion and 100million people in 541 and 542AD.
It is believed to have been spread by rats carrying fleas as well – spreading into the Byzantine Empire via grain ships arriving from Egypt.
HIV/AIDs Pandemic – Still ravaging parts of the world, its estimated some 35million people have been killed by the insidious virus since 1981.
It is believed to have jumped from primates to humans and was potentially first spread by the bushmeat trade.
The Third Plague – The Bubonic plague struck again in China in 1855 from where it spread and killed up to 15million people.
WHO estimated the bacteria was running rampant until 1960 – with only then the pandemic ending, and they continue to closely monitor any outbreaks of the plague.
Executive director of the Access to Medicine Foundation, Jayasree K Iyer, also named superbugs as a big pandemic risk.
She told us: “Antibiotic resistance already causes more than 700,000 deaths each year, including more than 200,000 infant deaths.
“Antibiotics are used for treatment in nearly all cases of severe COVID-19, leading thus to an increasing number of bacteria becoming resistant to these antibiotics.”
Ms Iyer and experts in the field are worried that pharmaceutical companies are not doing enough to create vaccines in time for the next pandemic.
For example, there are no drugs or vaccines specific for Nipah virus.
The next pandemic could prove to be a lot more deadlyCredit: Reuters
More work needs to be done on vaccines to be ready for the next pandemicCredit: AFP – Getty
But the next pandemic could well come from a pathogen currently unknown to us.
The unknown outbreak, known as Disease X, could trigger an outbreak worse than the Black Death if more is not done to control zoonotic diseases.
Out of the 1.67million unknown viruses on the planet up to 827,000 of these could have the ability to infect people from animals, according to the EcoHealth Alliance.
South East Asia, Southern and Central Africa, areas around the Amazon, and eastern Australia were all identified as the areas of highest risk for new diseases in a study published in Nature Communications.
Environmental writer John Vidal, who is working on a book revealing the links between nature and disease, predicted the world faces a new Black Death-scale pandemic.
Given the popularity of air travel and global trade, a virus could rampage across the world, unknowingly spread by asymptomatic carriers, “in a few weeks, killing tens of millions of people before borders could be closed”, he adds.
He said: “Mankind has changed its relationship with both wild and farmed animals, destroying their habitats and crowding them together – and the process… is only accelerating.
“If we fail to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, this present pandemic may be only a precursor to something far graver still.”