How many viruses pose a threat to humans?

shutterstock_1282280From common colds to HIV/AIDS, viruses are a constant threat to humankind. Now, a team of scientists is proposing a radical new defence system that could help defend humanity against over a million different virus species.

Generally, diseases are passed on from animals to humans. For example, the Ebola virus is thought to have stemmed from fruit bats. Once they infect humans they often spread so fast that modern medicine can’t keep up, triggering an epidemic.

The ambitious Global Virome Project

The new defence system is based on the idea that if humans are armed with a virus database they would be able to control and prevent outbreaks. It takes a proactive approach and suggests that humans should start immunising against virus species that could eventually transition from animals to humans.

The concept has been named the Global Virome Project and stresses the importance of cataloguing all existing animal viruses, then assessing the risk of infection to humans. They also argue that the number of animal viral diseases passed onto humans is increasing exponentially as populations expand into new areas. With this in mind, they underscore that acting now is critical.

A proactive approach to virus prevention

The research was published in the journal Science, with the authors explaining that medics should actively arm themselves against potential threats, before they arise.

“Following each outbreak, the public health community bemoans a lack of prescience, but after decades of reacting to each event with little focus on mitigation, we remain only marginally better protected against the next epidemic,” read an excerpt written by the authors. “At the moment, we usually prepare for future outbreaks of infectious disease by looking at those viruses or bacteria, such as Ebola, that have already crossed over, and thinking about the circumstances where this could happen again.”

Scientists warn against 1.67 million unknown viral species

Of course, a global project of this scale would come with a suitably large price tag. On top of known viruses, the authors the authors estimate there are approximately 1.67 million unknown viral species carried by mammals and birds. Of these, up to 800,000 could pose a risk to humans. To assess each virus independently would cost around US$7 billion. It’s a huge figure, though the team also argue that epidemics like the 2003 SARS outbreak infected around 8000 people and cost up to US$30 billion.

Source: Labmate