News Update

Tauktae is passé! Clock ticking for creation of Zoonotic Pandemics Forecasting System!

TIOL - COB( WEB) - 764
MAY 20, 2021

By Shailendra Kumar, Founder Editor

IT has indeed become a risky business to be an Indian! We are literally besieged by a protracted season of lethal and terrifying natural catastrophes! Even before the horror of second wave of hydra-headed Coronavirus sinks in, millions of Indians residing in as many as five coastal States have been struck by another natural disaster - severe cyclone named by Myanmar as 'Tauktae'. The howling gale coupled with heavy downpours have ravaged thousands of rickety thatched abodes of the poor, electric poles, telecommunication towers, 'green lungs' of the cities, public assets like oil drilling ships, roads, highways, hospitals, dilapidated schools and even recklessly constructed brick houses. As per studies, recorded disasters have doubled from 200 to more than 400 in the past two decades of the 21st Century. Of course, the climate change is the key driver. Studies indicate that nine out of 10 disasters are now climate-driven.

The two distinctive facts which emerge out of several organised studies of natural disasters are - one, most disasters are likely to kill less people than before; and two, their economic costs have abnormally leapt. As compared to scales of deaths triggered by natural disasters in the past where thousands of lives used to be squeezed to death such as floods in Bangladesh (3 lakhs were killed in 1970) or China (over 35 lakh lost lives) in 1931 floods or earthquakes in China or India (25000 killed in Gujarat quake in 2001), the number of human casualties has sharply tumbled. Only 128 lives were lost in the deadly cyclone Amphan last year. The case is not much different even though Tauktae has just assaulted India at the speed of 185 kmph - Category 3 hurricane in the Atlantic. The human casualty is barely in two digits so far!

How has it been achieved? How has the world managed to reduce the loss of human lives even as economic costs continue to spike - richer the impacted country is, higher would be the losses! And its answer lies in the global efforts to develop Early Warning System about the 'funny' moods of weather. Thanks to the intensive use of modern technology - data crunching and artificial intelligence, the level of accuracy post-tsunami has grown manifold. As a result, weather office in rich as well as poor countries have substantially benefited in terms of issuing timely warnings. For instance, States of West Bengal and Orissa are now bracing up to deal with India's next cyclone Yaas on May 26. Essence of time cannot be more acutely felt than during a disaster and the consequent relief work to save the injured. Thanks to regular alerts and weather bulletins, governments have been able to evacuate people from vulnerable areas; reduce damage to public property, enhance preparedness in hospitals and food supply chain and many other public services required to minimise human miseries.

Now the trillion-dollar question (the damage done by COVID-19 is estimated to be several trillion dollars to the global economy) is - If there can be an early warning system in place for cyclones or hurricanes or earthquakes or volcanoes or even geo-storms, why the governments across the world cannot develop a similar Pandemic Forecasting System to prevent the next pandemic like Coronavirus which has battered not only economies, social and professional lives and average mental health but also millions of human lives? Is it a 'Mission Impossible' for human brains? Are there too many dynamic variables to predict when and where the next outbreaks of virus-driven diseases are going to be? Whether such outbreaks would be endemic to a particular geographical pocket or may turn into a lethal pandemic like COVID-19?

Let me briefly recall the tale of weather forecasting attempt made for the first time, and how difficult it was to scale up accuracy as there were just too many non-static variables and technology was simply missing in 1860! An officer in the British Royal Navy, Robert Fitzroy, distressed by the sinking of a Royal Charter Ship close to the British shores, embarked on the unheard of vocation of forecasting local weather. He began mapping wind directions and collating barometer readings and then published his weather forecast in the Times. It was initially found to be of no value and full of accuracy pitfalls. But his initiation after a century turned into continuous measurements of temperature, wind humidity and air pressure across the globe and once data is fed into simulations and run on supercomputers, we come to know the precise state of atmosphere and weather for tomorrow! A time has come when we know whether to carry umbrella or rain-coat tomorrow on way to office or market is known in advance!

Today the pandemic-battered world is grappling with virus-led Armageddon and our scientists, armed with dynamic algorithms and high-quality robotics, cannot tell us on the basis of molecules floating around within people and animals when the next pandemic may strike the world again? Today's AI-driven biology certainly outclasses FitzRoy's meteorology. For scientists can gather all the antibodies out of blood drops (millions of litres collected for normal tests in hospitals and polyclinics and then drained out), trace antigens in mucus, pick genomes out of sewage and find traces of next outbreak of a disease from terabytes of data gathered! As early as in February 2018, a WHO panel of experts identified public health risks which included Ebola, SARS, Zika, Rift Valley fever and also 'Disease X'. The panel commented on 'Disease X' that it would be caused by a pathogen never seen before and would originate from animals somewhere in a part of the world where humans have taken over wildlife habitats! They were also specific in their observation that it would be deadlier than seasonal influenza and may turn out to be next big pandemic. Obviously, these experts were armed with eye-watering amount of data and studies which clearly provided them with a window for so accurate forecasting but the world besotted by geopolitical tussle, did not lend its ears to such forewarnings!

Now, the question is - Can our scientists make more precise forecasts like daily weather forecasts? Can they not be accurate enough to know in advance whether it is going to be a virus or a bacteria or a fungus-led outbreak and where first? My confidence is that our scientists can do it as fast as we have developed COVID vaccines provided they are funded well and the world cooperates with them without 'pouring' the Greek Goddess of poison into the prevailing fractured geopolitical landscape! The Independent Panel of Experts set up by the WHO has recently called for creation of a new global health threat council. The panel also noted that the WHO needs an overhaul as it is unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which may emerge any time. The experts were very emphatic in their findings that if the world does not act now, the present system will not protect the humanity from the next pandemic threat. True, WHO has been a 'toxic cocktail' of failures on many fronts, including tracing the origin of the Coronavirus!

The world needs to pool in funds to the tune of USD five billion and create such a Council mandated with the twin task of first, forecasting the period of next waves of Coronavirus which has brought the world to its knees and second, undertake the project of mapping all known and unknown viruses in right earnest. For advance preparedness and to break its tyranny of exponential growth, the global body should first embark on time-sensitive genome-sequencing studies to forecast when the next waves - it may be 5th for some and 3rd for countries like India - may rise vertically? Whether they would also spew fire in which many human lives may be 'burnt' to ashes?

The second task should also be time-bound as noted virologists, ecologists and epidemiologists have often warned of risks of a flu-like disease spilling over from wild animals. There are 264 virus species found to be infecting humans. Bats are known to be original reservoirs of SARS-COV, SARS-COV2, MERS-COV, Nipah, Ebola, Hendra and many more. Besides them, there are guesstimated to be around eight lakh more viruses which may jump from their habitual hosts to humans and spread like wildfire. All these viruses can be mapped and data can be stored in VirLab for further research. A parallel exercise can be undertaken to sift through waste blood samples which store a history of immune system engraved in antibodies. Such a project has been conceived by seasoned ecologist like Jessica Metcalf of Princeton University and epidemiologist like Michael Mina at Harvard University who are keen to use modern lab tools to detect incipient public health threats before they demonstrate their potential to fill up our mortuaries!

All seasoned experts may be roped in across the world by the recently-created WHO Hub for pandemic and epidemic intelligence and creating shared network access at Berlin. The Hub, supported by Germany and France, is envisaged to be a new global collaboration of countries worldwide, driving innovations for new tools and predictive models for risk analysis; and to monitor disease control. It is indeed a politic initiative to forestall the next wave as Coronavirus appears to have plenty of fuel still available. The Hub should quickly create a systemic brick wall of immunity against the next wave which may flare anew in the coming winters. But such a Hub within the fold of WHO may not measure to the size of the new task. Without tarrying, the WHO Governing Council should approve the Experts' Panel suggestion of creating a dedicated Council to prevent all future public health threats which impact both the rich as well as poor countries alike - theoretically, poor are hurt more but Coronavirus has so far demonstrated equity in hurting both alike! Let's hope that all the economic and political powers across the world work together to defenestrate all future pandemics as soon as they raise their hydra heads!