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Researchers: Virus research may be the cause of another pandemic

 April 19, 2023 at 12:30 PM PDT

S1: Welcome back. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. The coronavirus pandemic brought new attention to the practice of virus hunting. This is research involving emerging viruses found in animals but have not infected humans. But the dangers involving the research of deadly pathogens have some concerned it could result in another pandemic. And many scientists are now arguing the risks outweigh the benefits. David Willman is an investigative reporter with The Washington Post. His latest reporting involves a year long investigation into the risky world of virus hunting. And he's here to tell us more about what he found. David , welcome.

S2: Thank you. Good to be with you.

S1: Good to have you here. I'm going to tell you , you're reporting it made a lot of us a little uneasy. It can be concerning.

S2: And it entails what we focused on sending our teams of researchers to remote locations , typically in Southeast Asia , other parts of Asia , parts of Africa. It's also intended for areas in South America where these viruses indeed are circulating among the animals. That's distinct from pathogens that have spilled over and are causing human disease and suffering.


S2: The fact being , however , that there are tens of thousands of such viruses and the chances of any one of them spilling over into humans , according to experts , is minuscule. But the intention was to learn more about what's out there and ideally to be able to predict the next filter and present a future endemic. Of course , the work , regrettably media predictive North Limited , the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.


S2: And , you know , you're right. It starts at the point of where the researchers intersect. The animals , let's say in bat kings , out in force under canopies of trees where the bats roost. So if a researcher breathes in aerosolized material from that guano , that could lead to an infection. There's also risk in handling the bats right there At the point of collection , you could get bitten. And in fact , researchers are bitten. And if those bites draw blood , then , you know , the risk is obviously greatly increased infection. So there's risk with the collection , there's risk with placing the genetic material that is that is extracted from the bats or the the guano that's splayed out from the cave floors that has to be put in sealed vials and then into sealed foam containers kept at temperature control. And the the custody must be safeguarded. So that's the the transport and shipment component. And then there's risk back at the at the laboratory with analysis of the genetic material. Now , there are safeguards. You know , you hope that the material is chemically and activated before it is enlarged at the laboratory , but those procedures often fail safe. You know.

S1: Are there examples of virus hunting where it's proved successful and helped save lives.

S2: The virus hunting activities ? Again , that was a thread that worked. We've looked at these animal. The animal transmitted viruses has been ongoing for a dozen years or so. And so I guess on the positive side , you would say that more information has been gathered and scientists can continue to take further steps to research. Regrettably , a lot of the activities today have not produced a vaccine that would prevent certainly the pandemic that we've been going through or therapeutics that would stop it in its track. So that's juxtaposed with the risk of the virus hunting , which is certainly 24 over seven , and is constant. So. It's a matter of weighing the potential benefits with what we know in a certain rest.

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. That was Washington Post reporter Mark Willman talking about his reporting on virus hunting and the risks involved. Here to give us more insight on infectious disease research and pandemic preparedness. Is Dr. Christian Reimers , an infectious disease specialist with Family Health Center , San Diego. Dr. Ramirez , welcome back to Midday Edition.

S3: Thank you for having me , Jay.

S1: And we've spoken to you numerous times over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

S3: You know , anybody in infectious diseases in the field knows that these threats are likely to keep on coming on average about every 5 to 7 years. We have another emerging infectious disease , and each of them has a different degree of pandemic potential. We've had Zika virus and Ebola and West Nile virus and even bacteria like community acquired MRSA. So this is going to be a problem that keeps on coming at us. And I think it would be wise to actually stop and think about where we are and think about preparedness going forward rather than just kind of get back to business as usual.


S3: There's kind of a really more aggressive approach where you send scientists and biologists out in the field to take samples from animals , be they bats or livestock or other animals , and really kind of try to get ahead of the curve. That's a pretty risky thing to do because going out there and discovering these thousands and thousands of viruses that potentially could jump to humans , you know , you could actually have accidents and you could have people get sick from that very work. Another way to do it is just to be very active in your surveillance of what's happening in humans. And that is to say that creating sort of networks that report out on new illnesses that we can quickly jump on and sort of it's a question of where we want to put our money , where we want to put our funding in those two different buckets.


S3: I mean , this is dangerous work when you're when you're collecting samples from bats and other animals that can that can bite you. And the workers themselves certainly could get sick. But secondly , there's more of an existential threat from bad actors. You know , we maybe ten years ago it was discovered that there were still live smallpox virus samples in the NIH that were previously unaccounted for. And there's kind of a theoretical risk that a bad actor could get a hold of this and turn it into a bioterrorism weapon. And then the question becomes , should we be actively pursuing this because we're worried about other rogue international actors developing these type of bioterrorism weapons , or should we just kind of shut it down and have very , very strict federal regulation ? And , you know , there's arguments on both sides. A lot of this came to the fore when the anthrax kind of terrorist attacks were happening. And I think the government really responded with a lot of interest in funding into proactively dealing with bioterrorism and kind of getting getting ahead of the curve.

S1: I mean , the prospect of something turning into a bioterrorism weapon is certainly frightening.

S3: And I think some some oversight and some regulation would be would be a good thing. These are these are dangerous viruses. And not only just the viruses themselves and the risk to the workers , the lab workers that are dealing with them. But there needs to be oversight , I would say similar to , you know , genetic research , where if we're talking about cloning , there are really ethical concerns that that need to be talked about and thought about. And for example , there are some researchers that may take a regular old virus like influenza that we see every year and sort of work on what's called a gain of function mutation and maybe make it even worse or make it look in the lab that it's more transmissible. There absolutely needs to be oversight of that type of thing because it could be a very dangerous thing if it does get out of the lab into the general population.


S3: And Jada , I think you might be alluding to sort of what happened with COVID. And there's definitely still debate about this. Look , as I mentioned , every 5 to 7 years , we have what's called a spillover event where sort of a new virus jumps from a different species into humans. It's been happening throughout our entire evolution. And many of the common diseases that we see , such as tuberculosis or HIV or influenza , are viruses that originally viruses or bacteria that originally were in animals. You know , tuberculosis came from cows when we domesticated cows , and influenza probably came from birds , and HIV probably came from monkeys. So it's not implausible that this just happens as a part of the natural world. But I think there's also this anxiety that if sped along by a rogue researcher or somebody that could actually create a sort of quote unquote , Frankenstein virus , that might even be even more dangerous than what happens naturally.


S3: We've seen funding for public health just decline over the last 30 years or so. And unfortunately , we just don't have the systems in place that I think we should. And as we look forward towards the next pandemic , really being able to have the staff and the resources to respond to whatever's going to happen next is really critically important. And we really should take the lessons from this pandemic where , to be honest , I think we were caught a little bit flat footed in a lot of ways , not having diagnostic testing right away. We just need to be sure that we're ready. And , you know , don't get me wrong , we responded to COVID with incredible speed in developing vaccines within about 90 days and having therapeutics within a year and so on and so forth. But let's take those lessons forward and make sure that it doesn't happen again.


S3: If we just kind of stick our heads in the sand and go back to business as usual without really thinking thoughtfully about what can happen in the future , again , we could be caught flat footed. So just making sure that public health , which is just an essential function of any society , gets the adequate funding that it needs. And with things like climate change and things like more human settlements really imposing on animal habitats , I think this is just going to be more and more common.

S1: I've been speaking with Dr. Kristen Ramer , assistant medical director with Family Health Centers of San Diego and a member of San Diego County's Vaccine Clinical Advisory Group. Dr. Reimers , as always , thank you for your insight and thanks for joining us.

S3: Thank you so much for having me.

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An undated graphic of the coronavirus from the CDC.
An undated graphic of the coronavirus from the CDC.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought increased attention on research being done on emerging viruses found in animals, but have not infected humans. But the dangers involved have some concerned it could result in another pandemic.

Meanwhile, we hear from a local infectious disease expert on the importance of being prepared for a potential future pandemic.


David Willman, investigative reporter with the Washington Post

Dr. Christian Ramers, infectious disease specialist with Family Health Centers of San Diego