ua en ru

Viral outbreaks could kill 12 times more people by 2050

Viral outbreaks could kill 12 times more people by 2050 Viral outbreaks could kill 12 times more people by 2050 (Getty Images)

Scientists are concerned about the increasing frequency of epidemics and pandemics in recent years. Previously, pathogens were confined to isolated animal populations, but in the last half-century, they have triggered deadly epidemics at an exponential rate. It is a trend that is expected to worsen in the coming years, according to BMJ Global Health.

The mortality rate from viruses has increased by 8%

According to an analysis of historical data conducted by the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, outbreaks registered from four devastating animal viruses increased by almost 5% per year between 1963 and 2019. The annual mortality rate also increased by 8.7%.

Researchers predict that at this rate, the total number of deaths from a few diseases in 2050 will be at least 12 times higher than the data from 2020.

Most epidemics originate from animals

Modern viral epidemics mostly begin in populations of wild or domestic animals that carry pathogens without harm but transmit them from generation to generation.

If viruses develop the ability to infect the human body, any interaction between humans and animal hosts poses a risk for zoonotic spread – the invasion of pathogen pioneers that sow chaos when introduced into the human population.

Human activities have significantly increased the likelihood of such initial encounters, such as deeper penetration into natural habitats or forced population displacement due to widespread environmental loss and climate change.

Little is known about the actual frequency of zoonotic disease spread over time, complicating long-term predictions.

The analysis excluded the COVID-19 pandemic

Ginkgo Bioworks used a large database and studied the number and severity of zoonotic disease outbreaks reported by the WHO. They excluded the recent COVID-19 pandemic and potentially endemic diseases that could appear in human populations. They focused on a few animal-transmitted viruses: SARS Coronavirus 1, filoviruses like Ebola, Machupo virus (causing Bolivian hemorrhagic fever), and Nipah virus.

The analysis identified 75 events spreading to human populations from wild animals in 24 countries. Filoviruses were unquestionably the most deadly, with over 15,700 deaths in 40 outbreaks during the study period.

To compare, SARS-CoV-1 claimed just 922 lives, although amid just two outbreaks between 2002 and 2004. The Machupo and Nipah viruses together caused 529 deaths in 33 outbreaks.

There will be 12 times more deaths

These events, although seemingly fragmented, are claimed by scientists not to be the result of random anomalies but follow a multi-decade trend in which epidemics have become both larger and more frequent.

"If the trend observed in this study continues, we would expect these pathogens to cause four times the number of spillover events and 12 times the number of deaths in 2050, compared with 2020," the research says.

The authors emphasize that their estimates are rather conservative, as they did not consider recent examples like the COVID-19 pandemic.

They add that if the deadly pandemic has shown us anything, it is that governments are capable of funding surveillance and monitoring programs when faced with an increase in deaths. Knowing that this statistic may increase in the future because of a variety of epidemics, it may be time to expand infrastructure and technologies to better monitor the wild boundaries of animal viruses.