Coronavirus News Africa

EXPLAINER | Why UFS academics believe more pandemics may be on the way

Prof Robert Bragg, Prof Aliza le Roux and Dr Martin Nyaga.

  • Academics at UFS believe there may be more pandemics in the future. 
  • This is because of human’s interaction with animals, and not learning from previous pandemics. 
  • A senior lecturer furthermore believes new viruses will keep emerging due to its nature to mutate and adapt.  

People worldwide, including South Africans, should prepare for more pandemics in the future, academics at the University Free State (UFS) believe.

The academics also believe the current coronavirus, which has infected more than 18 million people and killed close to 700 000, is only a dress rehearsal for an even bigger pandemic.

UFS Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology Department researcher Professor Robert Bragg and Natural and Agricultural Sciences and Zoology assistant dean and entomology associate professor Aliza le Roux believe this is because of human’s interaction with animals, and not learning from previous pandemics. 

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Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) senior lecturer and researcher Dr Martin Nyaga believes viruses will keep emerging due to the nature of viruses to mutate and adapt. 

News24 looked at why UFS academics believe there may be more pandemics on the way, and how the next wave of viruses may be created. 

Why will there be more pandemics on the way? 

Bragg said the current coronavirus pandemic might look small compared to oncoming viruses which he called “the real big pandemic”. 

“Many virologists, including me, have been predicting an influenza pandemic for many years. Mankind has been warned about the coming pandemics for many years, but people seem to want to listen only when they are in the midst of a pandemic”.

Bragg said:

The bird-flu virus, influenza H5N1, has a mortality rate of around 60 to 65%, but it has not yet developed human-to-human transmission. If this virus does develop human-to-human transmission, we could be in for a really serious pandemic. We need to prepare for the next major pandemic.

Le Roux said human’s need for affordable meat on a regular basis was creating the perfect breeding ground for more diseases like this. 

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“This means our demand for meat is driving cheaper and less controlled agricultural practices, cramming more animals into smaller spaces, feeding them less and less natural fodder. 

“Remember mad cow disease? Have you seen chicken batteries? We should not blame ‘exotic’ eating practices, but look at our own. If we could see eating meat as a ‘treat’ and not a daily ‘right’, we can reduce pressure on the environment and reduce the speed at which another zoonotic virus can evolve”.

How may these viruses be created? 

Bragg said the previous coronavirus that caused global concern, SARS, also originated in a wet food market in China – just like Covid-19. 

He added SARS was traced back to a civet cat used for meat in such a wet food market and had a high mortality rate but could only be transmitted when a person showed clinical signs. 

Therefore, measuring the temperature of people was useful and beneficial. 

Bragg added:

There are many other examples of serious human pandemics which was spread from animals to humans. Another good example is the Ebola virus, which has also been traced to people eating bats in Africa. Yet another example is HIV, which is believed to have spread to man as a result of the consumption of chimpanzee meat.

“The most serious has been the 1918 Spanish flu, which started off in pigs and spread to man. All of these have to do with the mistreatment of animals by man.”

Nyaga said more disease outbreaks were possible within not only the coronavirus domain, but also any other class of organisms. 

“The ever-changing nature of viruses, mainly due to mutations and other mechanisms of genetic diversity, could occur through chain of transmission, including via the intermediate hosts,” he added.  

“This kind of antigenic mutations could make the general population vulnerable due to lack of immunity against the new strains of emerging strains or completely novel viruses”.

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