Disease experts warn flu is next most likely thing to spark a new pandemic

The flu.
The flu is the number one thing that could potentially cause another pandemic, according to experts -Credit:Getty

Health experts have warned that the flu is the most likely thing that could spark the next worldwide pandemic.

More than 50 per cent of a global group of infectious disease experts have said that influenza - also known as the flu - as the number one pathogen to show a concern of introducing another pandemic.

An unknown as-of-yet disease - named Disease X - was ranked second in the list of things most likely to spark another worldwide shutdown. Other pathogens with the potential to cause a pandemic included:

  • Coronavirus

  • Ebola

  • The original SARS virus from the early 2000s

  • Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF)

The study, which will be formally presented at the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases' (ESCMID) Global Congress in Barcelona later this month, quizzed 187 experts on global infectious diseases from 57 different countries.

Each expert was asked to rank various pathogens based on their perceived pandemic risk, encompassing diseases featured in the World Health Organisation's Research and Development Blueprint for Action to Prevent Epidemics, which focuses on key infectious diseases that pose significant threats to public health.

Experts ranked the pathogens in the order of their perceived risk, and also suggested pathogens not listed to include in their maximum of 14.

Experts ranked the pathogens in the order of their perceived risk -Credit:Getty

The experts' responses showed influenza viruses were viewed as the pathogen of highest concern, with over half (57 per cent) ranking it first and around a sixth (17 per cent) ranking it second.

More than a fifth (21 per cent) of the experts ranked the as-yet-unknown Disease X as having the highest pandemic potential, with another 14 per cent ranking it second.

The Coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, came third with nearly one in ten (8 per cent) ranking it first and 16 per cent ranking it second, whilst the original SARS-CoV virus that circulated in 2002-03 was voted number one by two per cent of respondents and second by eight per cent.

The CCHF and Ebola viruses were joint fifth, with 1.6 per cent of experts voting them first.

Nipah virus, henipavirus, and Rift Valley fever virus were among the pathogens ranked lowest in terms of their perceived pandemic potential.

Dr Jon Salmanton-García, the lead author of the study from the University of Cologne in Germany, explained: "The study revealed that influenza, Disease X, SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, and the Ebola virus are the most worrisome pathogens concerning their pandemic potential.

"These pathogens are characterised by their transmissibility through respiratory droplets and a history of previous epidemic or pandemic outbreaks.”

On influenza receiving the top ranking, Dr Salmanton-García said the flu already causes 'mini pandemics' across the world each winter.

"Each winter we have an influenza season," he said. "One could say that this means that every winter there are little pandemics. They are more or less controlled because the different strains are not virulent enough.

"Yet, every season the strains involved change, that is the reason why we can get influenza several times in life and vaccines change year to year. In case a new strain becomes more virulent, this control could be lost.”

However, Dr Salmanton-García added that the world is now much more prepared for a global pandemic after Covid.

"In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned many things on how to approach a respiratory virus pandemic," he continued. "This includes social distancing, hand cleaning, face masks, a renewed focus on vaccination, and trust in healthcare institutions.

"In parallel, institutions have also learnt a lot. Preparedness and surveillance are now, vitally, better-funded.”

The study was published in the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease.

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