There’s An App That Can Detect Future Pandemics

by Adarsh Modi

There’s An App That Can Detect Future Pandemics

April 7, 2021

Pandemics are far from over with the risk from 1.7 million viruses waiting to transfer from animals to humans in the form of Zoonotic diseases. A new web app, Spillover attempts to rank the risk from wildlife.

Most of us are fed up of hearing the word ’pandemic’ by now, but hear us out.

It has been more than a year since the world discovered the existence of the Covid-19 virus in China and scoffed at it. It certainly wouldn’t affect us, right?

But how the tables turn.

This is just another major pandemic in line with many previous pandemics like the bubonic plague, Spanish Flu, MERS, SARS that has been affecting the human population ever since ancient times. Humans, supposedly the most superior species in the food chain, are often brought down by microscopic insurgents that bring horrendous devastation from within.

The Evolution Of Zoonotic Diseases

The ongoing HIV epidemic, H1N1 viruses, Nipah, Zika, Ebola and currently Covid are wreaking havoc in the world that we live in today.  Will the ball stop with Covid? Will it be the last pandemic ever to affect us? Most certainly not. Many scientists and epidemiologists have been shouting their voices hoarse, warning us that it is not a matter of “If” but “when”.

There are approximately 1.7 million viruses that are estimated to exist in birds and animals on earth, and more than half of those could very well start the next major pandemic. Zoonotic viruses pose a significant threat to the health infrastructure across the world. Many documented cases of full-blown pandemics began with a virus that mutated and jumped from an animal to a human. The plague, HIV, SARS, MERS, and even the Covid 19 virus is believed to have originated from an animal. This phenomenon is called Spillover.

Microscopic organisms made for a nasty enemy in the ancient world. You could die from a single cut or even the flu. Then came Alexander Fleming and his miraculous discovery of antibiotics in 1928 that proved to be the most significant deterrent against microbial diseases and infections.

But as we look back, what have we really done to develop a sustainable infrastructure to combat and even prevent future pandemics?

Creating The Spillover!

Researchers at the University of California answering the same question have built a web-based tool to essentially list and rank all the potential viruses that could evolve and trigger the next pandemic. They are ranked based on the threat level they pose, the animal of origin, their origin country, and the host species they could pass to and from. The tool is named Spillover.

Zoe Grange, the postdoctoral wildlife disease ecologist at Davis, who worked on the project first hand, said that they looked at viruses that were already flagged to be transmittable from animals to humans and even to the ones that were recently discovered. Doing this will create a watchlist monitored by scientists and referenced by policymakers worldwide to dictate better health policy.

The Database

The researchers armed by the Agency of International Development of the US government discovered 900 new viruses, which include more than 150 coronaviruses. Grange, from this data, inferred some positive news, mentioning that  “not every virus will cause a pandemic”.

‘Spillover’s’ database is programmed in a way to assimilate new information from the scientists across oceans, which they could use to enrich the database and also contribute to the rankings with further information. This is important because the chances of another zoonotic virus spilling over increases with every tree we cut, with every pacific we drill into, with every amazon we raze. As we impinge on their habitats, the animals, the virus hosts are forced to come more inland and mix with the human population, thus exchanging viruses and diseases.

This is why the SPILLOVER watchlist becomes of paramount importance. We have watchlists for known terrorists and criminals as we monitor their every move. It only makes sense that we do the same for viruses and other deadly microbes that could, arguably, do more damage than both of the former combined. 


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