As of today, scientific institutes from twelve European countries are working together on a system to detect outbreaks of infectious diseases earlier. Marion Koopmans, head of the Virology department at Erasmus MC, coordinates the five-year project.
The European Commission subsidizes the project with 15 million euros. The research proposal dates back to before the corona pandemic, but that virus outbreak underlines its importance.
“The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is an unintended example: could we have detected the outbreak of this new virus sooner? Be able to estimate the potential impact more quickly? That’s what we need to look for. Our ambition is to prevent outbreaks of new infectious diseases to be able to detect at a much earlier stage, so that we can respond earlier and more adequately so that the impact on society can be limited, “says Koopmans.
Called the partnership Versatile Emerging infectious disease Observatory (VEO) will try to set up an interactive and virtual detection system for infectious diseases. In addition, data from laboratory studies are used, but also field studies and big data.
Citizens can cooperate, for example by passing on information about mosquito nuisance and the mosquito species they have seen. For example, the spread of the tiger mosquito, which can transmit various diseases, can be prevented.
Social media also play an important role. Reports of the outbreak of the coronavirus already appeared well before its official confirmation. By picking up such signals, outbreaks of infectious diseases can be detected earlier.
Infectious disease outbreaks are increasingly common. Climate change, people’s travel behavior and food shipping around the world play an important role in this. Many infectious diseases are zoonoses, diseases that can pass from animals to humans. This applies to Ebola, Lasso fever, SARS, MERS and also to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the current pandemic.
That pandemic is the perfect illustration of what the consequences of a late discovery of an outbreak can be: the entire world is out of control, many millions of people have already fallen ill, and more than half a million are killed without the end in sight.
European researchers not only want to detect an outbreak early, but they can also predict it. The researchers will study five conceivable scenarios for this.
They are investigating a scenario for an outbreak of a mosquito-borne infectious disease such as zika or dengue and an outbreak of a zoonosis such as Q fever or ebola. They are also studying the release of a pathogen from global warming in which the permafrost melts.
The fourth scenario is about a ‘silent outbreak’ in which a pathogen spreads undetected for quite some time. The last scenario concerns an outbreak of a completely unknown pathogen that leads to a pandemic.
If all succeeds, the new detection system could also be used during outbreaks to analyze data and limit the outbreak.