He knew the virus was coming. Here’s how to prevent the next one

Dr. Dennis Carroll is an expert with more than 30 years of experience in global health. He predicted that a new virus was coming and now he wants us to learn how to listen to the warning signals about crises like this. 

“What we don’t know about this disease is a lot,” Dr. Carroll said, but he also noted that as a global society “we have powerful actions at our disposal” to stem the spread of the disease and save lives. It is just a matter of understanding predictors and acting accordingly.

Until recently, Dr. Carroll was director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Threats Division. He currently serves as Director of the Global Virome Project, a global cooperative scientific initiative to massively lower risk of harm from future viral outbreaks over 10 years, and holds a PhD in molecular biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

What we do know helps inform our reactions

In 2009, after several years at USAID, Dr. Carroll created an agency program called PREDICT, which “tracks what the different viral threats that are in wildlife might look like, what underlying drivers would lead those threats to spill over into the human population,” and how to manage risky behaviors and actions surrounding those threats. It’s called zoonotic spillover; when pathogens are transferred from animals to us. The coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China as a virus inherent in bats, Dr. Carroll explained. It likely did not spill over because people were eating the bats, but more likely that someone was exposed to bodily fluids, blood, or some other sort of secretion from the bats. 

Why is that important? “Well, it has informed all of our responses to ‘flatten the curve’ of spread,” Dr. Carroll said. “If it were vector-borne, like Zika, it speaks to a different method of spreading.” Since we know it transfers person-to-person, we can socially isolate, prioritize the private sector towards making protective equipment and ventilators, and work on identifying those with antibodies. The more we know about the next pandemic, the better prepared we can be. 

Trying to keep one step ahead of the virus

Viruses survive by not killing off their hosts. “The ones that kill off their host quickly will disappear. With the SARS virus, it’s no surprise that killing 10 percent of its host, it wasn’t able to establish itself as a pandemic virus on this planet,” Dr. Carroll previously told Nautilus magazine

“This one has a lower pathogenicity. The lower its virulence, the more likely it’ll become part of an endemic, part of a seasonal event,” he said. That means COVID-19 could subside in the coming summer months, but Dr. Carroll said that brings up a host of questions about whether it is still infecting people, when it could make a resurgence, and what events bring that about. 

But, Dr. Carroll warned, we cannot operate on guesses and hope. There needs to be better data. 

Policymakers also need to acknowledge and react quickly to news of the overwhelmed health systems across the globe. Healthcare workers are not only putting themselves at high risk for the disease, but are also unable to provide regular non-virus healthcare as they were before. The long term effects of that are yet to be seen. 

We need to fund more research, absent of politics 

Dr. Carroll said the defunding of scientific research and closing a key offices dedicated to pandemic response has exacerbated the impact of the disease in the U.S. The solution would be to not let politics get in the way of evidence-based findings. He said PREDICT was “forward-thinking” but it needed to be carried out on a much larger scale, something he is hoping the Global Virome Project can do.