Pandemic Pathogens: Risks and Reality

Picture of the H1N1 influenza virus - biodefense

In the wake of public health emergencies resulting from outbreaks of Zika virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and Ebola virus disease (EVD), the Center for Health Security , part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, has published a new report aimed at understanding the pandemic threat landscape. In “Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens“, the authors shed some light on the realm of microorganisms that could cause a global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR), and how scientific practitioners, political leaders, and the world-at-large can be more informed about pandemic preparedness.


Here’s what we do know:

-RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses are the most likely class of microbial agents to cause a GCBR.

-The human factor can play a big role. Whether or not political and/or scientific authorities act quickly to contain an outbreak situation and implement countermeasures could be the difference between control or chaos.

-“Aggressive diagnostic testing” can provide critical information about pathogens and the evolution of infectious diseases. Greater emphasis on the uncovering the dynamic patterns of infection can improve situational awareness, pathogen discovery, and GCBR  global preparedness.


Here’s what we don’t know:

-There is a lot of “biological dark matter” in the global healthcare setting. This can be countered by uprooting the routine practices surrounding diagnostic testing of infectious diseases.

-It is always unclear where or when the next infectious outbreak will appear.


So, what do we do about it?

The authors argue that increasing preparedness and proactivity can and should be the first (and inherently best) line of defense. According to the report, a respiratory-borne RNA virus presents the greatest potential for a naturally-occurring GCBR event, yet vaccines for RNA respiratory viruses could be a tool to squelch burgeoning outbreaks or pre-vaccinate vulnerable populations. Several additional recommendations are included in the report, most of which are clinical in nature. However, the overarching theme is clear, the foundation of global health preparedness needs a new framework regarding infectious diseases, unknown pathogens, and how to truly prepare for, and respond to, a GCBR event.