Innovation is Key to Tackling Emerging Viruses and Managing Future Pandemics

As life has largely progressed to a new post-COVID normality in many parts of the world, a novel animal-derived virus – Langya henipavirus – has been identified in China. Scientists have emphasised that the new virus is currently spreading slowly, may not be transmissible between humans and has yet to cause severe disease, suggesting that a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 is unlikely. Even so, the outbreak, when considered alongside the global spread of monkeypox and a polio resurgence, underlines the importance of learning lessons from COVID to better prepare the world for the next pandemic.

And the threat will only grow more pressing with time. As wildlife habitats are compromised due to climatic changes and human intrusion, more people will come into contact with infected animals, accelerating the zoonotic transmission of viruses. A recent paper exploring this risk estimated that at least 10,000 viruses capable of infecting humans are already freely circulating in the wild. The report predicts that this trend is essentially inevitable, even if global warming is held under the COP 2°C target.

The report highlights the urgent need to improve protocols for future global virus outbreaks. Yet one positive legacy of the pandemic was that it fast-tracked vaccine development, ushering in a number of key innovations, the most celebrated of which was the success of mRNA vaccines.

In light of this progress, mRNA vaccines are currently undergoing trials in the fight against diseases including the flu, HIV, and the deadly Nipah virus. COVID vaccine pioneer Moderna is in the process of developing the mRNA-1010 vaccine, which it hopes will provide updated protection from the common flu. As it stands, the most commonly used flu shots are generally only around 40-60% effective, with best-guess strains needing to be selected and implemented months ahead of time. Conversely, this new mRNA vaccine will be more rapidly prepared and accurately targeted.

Meanwhile, Sanofi, a rival biotech company – which recently announced a $476 million annual commitment to mRNA vaccines – has already begun trialling its seasonal mRNA flu vaccine. Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is also developing new antibodies to help prevent flu, in collaboration with Vir Biotechnology. What’s more, GSK and Vir are expanding their joint genomics project to include the development of a number of non-influenza pathogens over a three-year research period.

Broader innovations, meanwhile, could help manage the next severe outbreak while minimising the social and economic damage inflicted by repeated lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic – and advanced AI technologies are showing significant potential.

AI-supported thermal imaging has already been deployed to allow public venues to re-open in a COVID-safe way. For example, AI company Remark Holdings collaborated with the Meadows School in Las Vegas in August 2020 to manage the return to school after the initial pandemic lockdown, deploying its Thermal Kit solution. This solution can scan hundreds of people per minute for high temperatures – helping schools identify which students to test for potential COVID infection – monitor crowd density and even sound an alert if people aren’t wearing masks.

Remark’s suite of thermal AI solutions has also been used to safely reopen a wide range of organisations around the world, including entertainment and hospitality venues, retail establishments, and industrial sites, helping some of the hardest hit sectors begin their recovery while controlling the spread of COVID.

Also recognising the poor efficiency of human-operated temperature scanning portals, intelligent surveillance software firm Digital Barriers and Vodafone have partnered to develop heat detection cameras which use AI-powered video surveillance and analytics technology in combination with Vodafone’s connectivity services to rapidly scan people’s temperature as they enter a space. This data is instantly displayed on a digital device in a separate control room, allowing for the efficient and non-invasive detection of illness, which is particularly useful for mass gatherings.

At the same time, AI and machine learning are supporting genome sequencing, a process critical to vaccine research that allows authorities to plan public-health strategies with greater confidence. A group of U.S. researchers led by Stanford University recently used AI to record the fastest time for DNA sequencing. This is a crucial breakthrough, as the ability to rapidly unpick a virus’s genetic code enables scientists to develop vaccines without delay – a critical factor in the impressive COVID-19 vaccine response and in the subsequent detection of variants.

Despite this progress, some experts are sounding a note of caution. While COVID prompted and accelerated the development of a raft of AI-assisted tools to estimate patients’ relative risks of severe disease, most still need more work to live up to their potential.

Among the problems that were uncovered in a professional review of predictive medical tools was the use of poor-quality data in the all-important developmental stages – a misstep that meant some models didn’t always work as they claimed. Rushing to develop unique models rather than working together or improving existing solutions can result in the launch of hundreds of mediocre tools, as opposed to a handful of properly tested and effective ones.

Greater collaboration is key in optimising these innovations. The World Health Organization has mooted the creation of an emergency contract for international health crises that would facilitate cross-border data sharing for the public good. Such agreements should be reached before the eruption of another major outbreak.

Effective partnerships empower public health authorities to leverage innovative technology in the fight against emerging viruses and prospective pandemics. Strong coalitions were established to tackle COVID-19, with the aim of detecting and containing new pathogens. These so-called ‘virus hunters’ are key to surveillance, testing, and treatments, because by the time a pandemic strikes it’s already too late to start creating the international relationships and networks needed to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving virus. As the Langya henipavirus, monkeypox, and polio outbreaks unfold, governments must keep this in mind.