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Influenza is considered the biggest pandemic threat

Influenza is viewed by infectious disease specialists as the pathogen with the highest pandemic potential, according to findings unveiled at a major global congress in Barcelona.

A survey conducted by the VACCELERATE Consortium revealed that 57% of the experts ranked influenza at the top of the list of pandemic threats. This highlights the persistent threat of influenza to global health.

Exploring the top pandemic threats

The survey reached out to a broad spectrum of experts from 57 countries, garnering 187 responses that provide a snapshot of the global perspective on infectious threats.

Influenza emerged as the primary pandemic concern due to its ability to mutate and spread widely each season.

Disease X – an undefined pathogen representing emerging diseases – and SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the recent COVID-19 pandemic, followed closely.

In their study, the experts evaluated a variety of pathogens, including those listed in the World Health Organization’s R&D Blueprint for Action to Prevent Epidemics.

The blueprint serves as a proactive measure to identify and prioritize research on diseases that pose significant public health risks due to their infectivity, transmissibility, and potential for severe impact.

Prioritizing pathogens with pandemic potential

Besides influenza, the survey highlighted other critical threats. Disease X, a placeholder for potential future pathogens, was ranked highest by 21% of respondents, underscoring the constant vigilance needed against unknown viruses.

Respondents also noted the significant impact of SARS-CoV-2 and its predecessor, SARS-CoV, which caused the 2002-03 outbreak.

A smaller fraction of experts recognized lesser-known but equally concerning pathogens like the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus and the Ebola virus, noting their deadly outbreaks.

Conversely, experts ranked viruses such as Hantavirus, Lassa virus, Nipah virus, henipavirus, and Rift Valley fever virus lower in terms of immediate pandemic potential, suggesting they pose a lesser immediate threat, yet emphasizing the ongoing need for monitoring and research.

Influenza’s pandemic threat

Dr. Jon Salmanton-García commented on the findings: “Each winter we have an influenza season. 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.”

Insights from the COVID-19 pandemic

The recent experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly shifted the landscape of pandemic preparedness.

Dr. Salmanton-García explained that the global response to COVID-19 has enhanced our approach to managing respiratory viruses, improving practices in social distancing, hand hygiene, mask usage, and vaccination strategies.

“In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned many things on how to approach a respiratory virus pandemic. This includes social distancing, hand cleaning, face masks, a renewed focus on vaccination, and trust in healthcare institutions. In parallel, institutions have also learned a lot. Preparedness and surveillance are now, vitally, better-funded,” said Dr. Salmanton-García.

Understanding pandemic threats

The study paints a clear picture of the infectious disease landscape, identifying influenza, Disease X, and coronaviruses among the top concerns for global health security.

The findings emphasize the need for continued vigilance, research, and preparation to mitigate the impact of potential future pandemics.

More about pandemic threats

Pandemic threats are often caused by novel viruses or bacteria to which the general population has little to no immunity. The severity and spread of these diseases can be influenced by various factors, including the pathogen’s transmissibility, virulence, and the availability of effective treatments or vaccines.

Modern global connectivity through travel and trade, along with urbanization and environmental changes, can exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases, making pandemics more likely. 

The impact of a pandemic can be profound, not only causing widespread health crises but also affecting economies, social structures, and daily life. Governments and international organizations work to monitor and manage these risks through surveillance, preparedness plans, and public health interventions aimed at controlling the spread of diseases and minimizing their impact on society. 

Effective response strategies often include measures such as vaccination campaigns, travel restrictions, quarantine, and public education about hygiene practices.

The research will be presented at the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases‘ (ESCMID) Global Congress in Barcelona later this month.


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