Preparing for the worst


A new report exploring the common traits of contagious pathogens finds shared characteristics in pandemics you might not expect.

Undertaken by the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, The Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens is a new study hoping to improve global pandemic preparedness by ‘identifying the attributes of microorganisms most likely to cause a global catastrophic biological event.


Respiratory Transmission

The researchers found that one of the fundamental traits of pandemics is efficient transmission from human-to-human – with perhaps the most effective (and dangerous) means of travel being contamination through air.

Speaking to Live Science, Dr Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said: We need to get serious about respiratory viruses.

“[There is] a lot of focus on diseases that aren’t going to be able to change civilization in a way that something that’s spread through the respiratory route would be.”

Airborne pathogens aren’t the only trait to be weary of though in trying to spot a pandemic.


Low but significant fatality rate

Perhaps a surprising finding of the report is that an effective pandemic would have a “low but significant” fatality rate.

“[It’s] not always going to be somebody dying a horrible death… it could be a very minimal case, symptoms-wise, Adalja said, “it just has to make a lot of people sick.”

Practically speaking – if an infection or virus kills too many of its hosts too quickly, they won’t be able to pass it on.

However, perhaps the most important common trait of a pandemic is that the population need to be largely immunologically naïve for it to take hold and spread.


Immunologically naïve

While bacterial infections have reached pandemic levels in the past, such as the black plague of 1347-1351, the advancement of antibacterial therapies is limiting the likelihood of bacterial global recurrences.

RNA viruses however, would be ideal candidates as they mutate easily and are difficult to vaccinate against.

Much funding and research is being done on tracking and cataloguing lethal pathogens, the researchers say, but more focus should be given to new viruses and mutations than on those that have caused pandemics before.



In response to its findings, the report calls on governments, scientists, medical practitioners and pharmaceutical companies to take action on a number of points, including:

  • improved surveillance of viruses,
  • an increased emphasis on developing antiviral drugs, and
  • a more flexible approach to research and for new/undiscovered RNA viruses.

But one of the simplest ways to prepare and prevent pandemics, they argue, is for more testing to be done at the initial diagnosis to find out the exact cause of illness.


Read the report in full on the Centre For Health Security website here.