A Look at ‘Disease Detectives’: Can They Stop the Next Coronavirus?

As the world continues to reel from the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic, you might be wondering how can we stop this from happening again. How do we stop the next coronavirus from ravaging the globe? While many government officials, including President Trump, have asserted that the coronavirus caught everyone by surprise, the truth is that there are teams of people whose job is to prevent that from happening. These professionals are sometimes known colloquially as “disease detectives,” and it is their job to look for diseases and assess their risk. They often look closely at diseases that could mutate and make the jump from animals to humans, of which the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is one.

How Did We Miss It?

So, if these disease detectives exist, how could they have missed this threat? Epidemiologists who hunt for dangerous viruses have been around for years, and in fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched a project known as PREDICT in 2009. PREDICT was just one of the programs established in order to help epidemiologists to identify unknown viruses with the potential to cross from animals to humans, possibly leading to pandemics. Unfortunately, this disease surveillance network (which worked with 31 countries to identify viruses) was quite underfunded and had little manpower. As a result, many potentially deadly diseases slipped right through our fingers: SARS-CoV-2 was one of them.

A Known Threat

In fact, scientists and epidemiologists studying these viruses were well aware of the potential threat that coronaviruses could pose to the human population. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong called the many viruses found in bats that were similar to SARS-CoV (which caused an outbreak in 2002) a “time bomb” in a 2007 research paper. As it turns out, the virus which causes COVID-19 was so similar to this virus that scientists eventually named it SARS-CoV-2. At the time of the initial outbreak, researchers had already identified numerous viruses that were similar to SARS-CoV and were researching them in laboratories.

The truth is that without the funding behind disease research, catching these viruses before they become a problem is simply an exercise in futility. If we want to stop the next coronavirus from devastating the global economy, we need to fund these programs. Just months before the coronavirus pandemic began in September 2019, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would be ending its financial support for PREDICT. Who knows what might have happened if that program and others like it had had the finances and manpower necessary to complete their work?