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‘Informed Vigilance’ Necessary To Prepare For Emerging Zoonotic Infections

In an International New York Times opinion piece, author David Quammen examines the origins of various infectious diseases, writing, “AIDS, SARS, Ebola virus and many other new diseases have one thing in common: they are zoonotic,” meaning “they came from nonhuman animals and made the leap to humans.” He notes “60 percent of human infectious diseases, including the worst of the old ones and the scariest of the new, are zoonotic,” and he adds, “Now disease experts wonder about the ‘next big one': when will it come, what will it look like, from which reservoir host will it spill over, and how many people will it kill?” He continues, “Experts believe that the next global pandemic is likely to be caused by a virus with high ‘intrinsic evolvability,’ meaning that it mutates especially quickly or recombines elements of its genetic material during the process of replication.”

“Precise prediction may not be possible, but informed vigilance is,” Quammen writes, and describes some of these efforts. He states, “We can’t prevent another malign bug from entering the human population. But will it kill a few thousand people, or tens of millions?” He concludes, “The answer may depend not just on the nature of the virus, and on the density and abundance of Homo sapiens on this planet, but also on the particulars of how we respond” (10/14). In an accompanying New York Times article, Quammen “looks deeper at the symptoms, circumstances and fallout that characterized the Black Death, Spanish Influenza, Ebola virus, AIDS and SARS” (10/14).