A couple of months ago, the Mega Interesting team spoke to the professor and researcher in the Group of Microbial Interactions of the Department of Microbiology and Genetics of the University of Salamanca, Raul Rivas, who predicted the occurrence of a new epidemic outburst. “It is possible that a new epidemic may appear, mainly of virus origin,” he noted. “This is something that has a cyclic character and has not happened for a long time, but it will happen as viruses recombine, new strains appear and therefore new diseases.”
With the start of 2020, coronavirus Codvid-19 appeared and Mega Interesting discussed with Rivas regarding the new virus.
“It turns out that every ten years or so, we have a new epidemic of some respiratory virus, which are those that generate more social alarm and have the ability to spread faster,” explains Rivas. “In 2003 it was the SARS, then the MERS came in 2012 and now it’s coronavirus in 2020.”
I would also like to point out that this has been the first epidemic broadcast in real time, as we are informed everything that is happening in real-time, and it has also generated a greater sense of alarm, which from my point of view has been excessive. We’re talking about a very contagious virus, but the mortality rates are relatively low.”
Rivas went on to explain how a new virus comes about, highlighting the role of humans in the process.
“The virus needs us because it can’t reproduce itself, and it uses our cellular machinery for this,” he adds. “There are viruses, such as hepatitis, that have the key to entering liver cells, and other viruses such as influenza which use lung cells.
“Cell damage occurs, which triggers a cytokine cascade as a response from the body and generates symptoms such as fever. Although there may be genetic recombination between different viruses, it is normal for specific mutations to occur, because viruses have fewer mechanisms to fight them. These mutations, sometimes, allow them to have different keys and open new cells that can be, even, of animal species that had not been infected until then.”
Coronavirus has alerted governments across the world, but Rivas insists that there are other viruses which could harm humans more than this new one.
“Many of the viruses are in wild animal species with which we are in continuous contact,” he continues. “It may happen that some of these viruses, which are continuously mutating, find these new gateways. It is not that they adapt immediately to the human being, as they usually use intermediate steps through other mammals related to us.
“This is the case with these new coronavirus as in the majority the main reservoir are bats which are reservoirs of many viruses, such as Ebola. There is little talk about Ebola, but in reality the problem in Africa with this disease should worry us a lot more.”
Rivas points out that China has the perfect conditions for a virus to expand due to the country’s high population density, their tourism and their contact with wild animals.
“These animals are those that in the end transmit the disease, as in the case of SARS they were the civets, in the case of the MERS it was in the Middle East with the dromedaries and now in the case of the coronavirus everything seems to indicate that it is the pangolin, which is consumed in some parts of China and in others its scales are used for medicine purposes.
“Although its trade has been strictly prohibited, there is still a black market, with which the transmission can continue because we are talking about immense cities of 20 or 40 million inhabitants.”
Many conspiracy theories have sparked about the occurrence of the new virus, but Rivas believes that rumours should be put to bed.
“It must also be taken into account that the sanitary and hygienic conditions of these markets are not those of the European markets and the controls are not the same,” he notes. “There are many conspiracy theories that say the coronavirus could be something they are manipulating, a biological weapon that has escaped.
Well, it could be like that, but it is very twisted and you have to be very clumsy for a virus like this to escape from you. We are talking about a natural process that has happened and will always happen.”
“Firstly, we must improve the control of the trade and consumption of wild animals,” says Rivas. “On the other hand, there has been a first attempt to anticipate the outbreak with artificial intelligence. A company developed a program that, by detecting those that arose from unknown diseases and by using other data such as symptomatology, predicted what was happening and how it was going to spread.
“The program said that it could be a new respiratory disease and that it could be a virus, located all the flights that could leave the city based on tourists and was right in which countries the disease would appear outside of China.
“Artificial intelligence can help us know where a focus may appear and how it will spread, but I would say it is impossible to eliminate these viruses, or to make them not appear again. Viruses are very varied, they will continue to mutate, many of them are in wild animals that are uncontrollable.
“It's complicated. How do you prevent someone from hunting an animal and putting it on sale in a crowded country like China or India?”
Humans should be cautious with wild animals, but as Rivas indicates, people shouldn’t eradicate specific pieces to avoid new misuses.
“There are very extremist people who may think that the solution is to eradicate bats, for example,” he explains. “Bats are a crucial link in ecosystems and they are also large consumers of insects that, in turn, are vectors of many diseases that affect us. So let's leave the bats calm.
“Now, what you have to be careful of is when handling wild animals. If we find dead wild animals, for example, it is best to notify the competent authorities. We must be cautious, also when we travel to countries where we know that the hygienic conditions in the markets are not so controlled and we must be careful with what we eat.
As Rivas makes clear there are certain measures people should take individually to avoid the spread of such diseases.
“For example, washing our hands well and with relative frequency,” he points out. “Or cover our mouth with the inside of the elbow when coughing, because that way we avoid having viruses in hand and transmitting them more easily to other people.”
For the moment being, coronavirus has dominated the headlines across the world. Many may wonder when vaccines will be put on the market, but Rivas maintains that this is not a permanent solution.
“The World Health Organization in these cases tries to speed up the process and has already indicated that there may be an initial vaccine in a period of six or seven months, but the problem is that this vaccine will protect against this type of virus, not against others,” mentions Rivas.
“This is what happens with the flu, which mutates very easily and when we inoculate the vaccine, it immunises us against the viruses that caused it last year. If the virus has mutated a lot, the vaccine protects us less.
“We must also bear in mind that coronaviruses are much more frequent than we might think. In fact, coronaviruses and rhinoviruses are responsible for the common cold. They have a lot of genetic plasticity and thanks to it they sometimes become more aggressive. In other forms we don't even find out.
“Many affect only risk population groups, who may be old or have other diseases. In healthy people many of these viruses go unnoticed because they generate milder symptoms.”