SINGAPORE: Three years ago today (Mar 11), the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic, and unfortunately, it will not be the last one.
According to a 2021 study by the Duke Global Health Institute, outbreaks have become more prominent over the past 50 years, with increased occurrences caused by mosquito-borne diseases, global food contamination, zoonotic (animal-to-human transmission), viral and haemorrhagic diseases.
The most important takeaway of this study is that pandemics such as COVID-19 and the Spanish flu are “relatively likely” to occur in times to come.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT PANDEMIC?
Climate change is expected to exacerbate mosquito-borne diseases, as temperatures and water levels rise. This in turn increases the risks of outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria and Zika virus.
Not only can we expect more frequent outbreaks, we can also expect outbreaks in places that were previously not at risk of such diseases. In addition, the melting of permafrost brings about the release of previously frozen pathogens, which in turn may lead to the evolution of new diseases and outbreaks.
Furthermore, the increased occurrences of natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods and droughts, as well as man-made issues like deforestation bring risks of wildlife coming into closer contact with human habitation. This increases the risk of zoonotic diseases evolving and potentially causing outbreaks.
It has been 13 years since the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and history has shown that we will be faced with an influenza pandemic once every few decades.
The most likely scenario for the next pandemic is a new strain of influenza like the H7N9 bird flu virus or a new virus like the novel coronavirus in 2019, according to Professor Maire Connolly, coordinator of PANDEM-2, a European Union-funded project that aims to develop new solutions for efficient EU-wide pandemic management.