Viruses, vaccination and future pandemics – Answers provided by Associate Professor Allison Imrie, a virologist in The University of Western Australia’s School of Biomedical Sciences, with knowledge of the history of novel viruses and their transmission.
Do virologists see the COVID-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-lifetime event or is there concern another pandemic may be on the horizon? If so, could mass vaccinations become a regular part of our lives?
Most virologists would agree that other pandemics are on the horizon and are inevitable and we can expect vaccines will be developed for newly emergent, virulent viruses that cause significant disease in humans. This current pandemic has highlighted the incredible advance in vaccine technologies over the past decade and more, that has produced the mRNA vaccines for example. It is feasible that these new designs will allow vaccines to be modified relatively easily, to incorporate new pathogens and variants of pathogens we already know about, in real time.
Associate Professor Allison Imrie said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted advancements in vaccine technologies
Have we made any real progress in the past year on determining the starting point/initial cause for the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19?
It may never be possible to identify the indexcase, that is, the first person ever infected with SARS-CoV-2 when the virus crossed from animals to humans. We already know, following the WHO trip to Wuhan recently, that there were cases as early as October 2019 outside Wuhan and that multiple variants were circulating – this indicates the virus had already been circulating for a significant period of time before a combination of events occurred and the first cluster of cases of what became known as COVID-19 was identified at the end of 2019. Zoonotic diseases – diseases of animals that can cross into humans – are well recognised and in this sense, emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 was not at all surprising. The WHO team has reported that there were good discussions around working together with colleagues in China and other countries to investigate further, the possible points of entry of this virus into humans – including looking more closely at risks associated with wildlife trade for food, furs and traditional medicine. There was consensus that the virus was not an escapee from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is again not at all surprising.
“It is important to remind ourselves that the virus is now circulating globally and that we should focus on our current and future efforts to control transmission.”
Associate Professor Allison Imrie
Are we now better equipped to detect early and respond to a similar emerging new virus?
It is important to remind ourselves that the virus is now circulating globally and that we should focus on our current and future efforts to control transmission, enhance clinical care, and understand disease pathogenesis. It’s also good to remind ourselves that index cases have not been identified for other pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS when it emerged in 1981.
How long did it take Australia to recover from the health impacts of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic?
Unemployment rates increased in 1919, the peak coinciding with flu-related death rates that year. Unemployment rates fell sharply with the end of the pandemic in 1919 and the labour market recovered very quickly without any obvious long term effects. However, the impacts of the 1918 pandemic on GDP were more difficult to identify without controlling for other factors that would influence economic growth.
Could it take Australia a similar period to recover from the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Australian economy is very different now, to what it was in 1918, and our understanding of how to diagnose and treat disease is much more advanced. However, the rapid economic recovery following the 1918 pandemic indicates that a rapid response from a pandemic caused by a novel, virulent emergent virus is possible.