In December 2019, a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 ) was identified in Wuhan, China. By the 11th of March of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. A year later, more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide have been attributed to infection of the new viral strain and over 113 million cases have been confirmed in the lab.
The pandemic has impacted life as we know it around the globe. Healthcare systems have been tested, human behavior has been altered to curb the spread of the virus, economies have been stalled, and the norms of the modern workplace have been forced to shift.
The numerous negative impacts on human health, the strain of isolation, uncertainty and chronic stress, together with the delayed vital surgeries and therapies and reduced funding to essential disease research has provoked scientists, policy-makers, and global governments to consider what the future of pandemics may look like in order to prepare to cope with any future outbreaks of infectious disease.
Here, we discuss what the future of pandemics may look like and how they may be avoided.
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Tackle climate change to manage future pandemics
Back in December 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 viral strain had not been previously identified in humans. However, it was not the first coronavirus outbreak to impact humans. Recent years have witnessed outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012.
Being the third coronavirus outbreak in just two decades, it is important for scientists to understand how the strain arose and how it first entered the human species. Currently, the origin of COVID-19 is not agreed upon. Several mammals have been implicated in previous outbreaks of coronavirus, but the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2 is still debated.
However, a recent paper published in January 2021 in the journal Science of the Total Environment has presented evidence that the virus emerged from bat populations. Additionally, the paper stresses that climate change directly influenced environmental changes that allowed bat species to flourish where they otherwise would not have, resulting in the infiltration of dozens more species in China and surrounding areas.
Given that number of coronaviruses in a particular environment is associated with the number of bat species that inhabit that area, the proliferation of bats in China because of climate change has been called out as a probable cause of the COVID-19 pandemics.
Scientists are calling for climate change to be tackled, not only to save the future of the planet but to simultaneously address the threat of future pandemics. COVID-19 is not alone in being an infectious disease outbreak linked to climate change. Therefore, if climate change is not addressed, numerous future pandemics could be around the corner.
The vaccine is not the end of the COVID-19 story
While the approval of several vaccines for COVID-19 has sparked hope that the end of the pandemic may be approaching, the vaccine will not be the end of the COVID-19 story. There is the chance of the virus evolving and evading the protection of the vaccine. Therefore, the future will likely heavily depend on how governments manage restrictions on social behavior.
Data shows us that different countries have addressed the pandemic in a variety of ways, and the unequal responses have generated unequal impacts. There are many lessons to learn from how social distancing strategies have been effective and ineffective at reducing the spread of the virus.
While much has been learned about SARS-CoV-2 in a short space of time, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how the virus may evolve. Although COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out with much speed and urgency in numerous countries, it is likely that strategies that impact human behavior will continue to play a role in the future of the COVID-19 pandemic and other potential pandemics that may follow.
Many scientists consider us moving onto a new phase of the pandemic rather than the end of the pandemic and stress the need to fine-tune government-implemented restrictions so that they are effective but also tolerable. It is likely that restrictions, to some extent, will continue to be enforced into the future not only to tackle Covid-19 but to also prevent future pandemics.
This is how we prevent the next pandemic
Permanent changes to human behavior
What will the world look like post-COVID-19? With restrictions to some extent expected for the foreseeable future, a return to ‘normal life’ will unlikely occur. It is predicted, rather, that there will be a shift in the ‘norm’ in order to get ahead of potential future pandemics to avoid the significant impact on life that the COVID-19 pandemic caused.
Workplaces will likely continue to embrace some form of remote working and the structure of the modern workplace will adapt. Modern technology is ready to facilitate remote working and there are many benefits to both employees and employers to be taken advantage of. The pandemic likely induced a change in working that would have happened in some years anyway, it has simply been brought forward.
Travel is another industry that we likely see a long-term impact. Wearing face coverings on transport and preventing overcrowding will continue to be a focus. In addition, international travel will continue to be under scrutiny. It can be predicted that infectious disease outbreaks will continue to be closely monitored across the world, with travel corridors continuing and border restrictions enforced in order to prevent future pandemics.
Finally, intermittent lockdowns may be part of the ‘new norm’. Governments will have learned from their previous strategies and those of others. We may arrive at a place where effective measures may be enforced temporarily to curb the potential spread of infectious disease before it becomes out of hand.
- Beyer, R., Manica, A. and Mora, C., 2021. Shifts in global bat diversity suggest a possible role of climate change in the emergence of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. Science of The Total Environment, 767, p.145413. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969721004812?via%3Dihub
- How the pandemic might play out in 2021 and beyond. Megan Scudellari. Nature. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02278-5
- Skegg, D., Gluckman, P., Boulton, G., Hackmann, H., Karim, S., Piot, P. and Woopen, C., 2021. Future scenarios for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet, 397(10276), pp.777-778. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00424-4/fulltext