“It’s not just about disease surveillance; we really need to bring multidisciplinary teams together, and use the resources to answer several different questions,” said Professor Wanda Markotter during her recent expert lecture on whether wildlife biosurveillance can prevent future pandemics. “We are not in the position anymore where we can use all our resources to focus on just surveillance.”
Her lecture was the 26th in the University of Pretoria (UP) Expert Lecture series, which provides UP researchers with a public platform to engage with a wider audience about significant developments in their fields of expertise that are likely to have an impact in the future.
Prof Markotter, Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses at UP’s Faculty of Health Sciences and the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair in Infectious Diseases of Animals (Zoonoses), reminded viewers that we are still firmly in the grip of COVID-19, with almost 50 million confirmed cases worldwide, just over 1.2 million deaths, and increasing numbers in Europe and the Americas.
By growing multidisciplinary teams, she said, the answers to the burning questions about how and why diseases spread from animals to humans can begin to be answered.
“We need to bring someone in that knows land use changes and human behaviour; in that process, we will get the answers. I’m privileged to be at an institution that’s very forward-thinking in terms of multidisciplinary research, and also puts resources into it.”
During her address, Prof Markotter also explored the differences between the SARS outbreak of 2002 and the current COVID-19 virus.
“We aren’t talking about just one coronavirus – there are hundreds of them. And there are several hosts that can be infected, from humans to wildlife, pets, livestock, birds and bats. We have discovered that they [SARS and COVID-19] are not the same virus, but they are in the same genus.”
She also shared ideas on what scientists have come to understand about coronaviruses.
“If we look at the history of outbreaks, we can see that the frequency is increasing,” Prof Markotter explained. “We have seen more outbreaks over the past 10 to 15 years, and they are more severe. We also know that most of these diseases come from an existing microbial diversity found in nature. There is an estimated 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in mammalian and avian hosts, and more than half a million of these have the potential to spill over into humans. It’s important for us to understand why spillover is happening – mostly it is due to contact between and among wildlife, livestock and people.”