Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently developed a framework to help identify microorganisms that are most likely to cause a global pandemic to inform future preparedness and response efforts.
The report from the researchers, “The Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens,” describes the framework and provides recommendations for improving global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) preparedness.
The health security community typically relies on historical examples of outbreaks, which does not account for biological agents that do not have historical precedent or are not known. This framework could help prepare for GCBR events with no historical precedent.
“Health security preparedness needs to be adaptable to new threats and not exclusively wedded to historical notions,” Amesh Adalja, project lead and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said. “A more active-minded approach to this problem will, in the end, help guard against a GCBR event occurring.”
To complete the project, the researchers reviewed published literature, interviewed technical experts from academia, industry, and government and organize a meeting of experts to discuss the preliminary analysis of the information the team had collected.
The primary finding in the report identifies common characteristics of a potential GCBR-level pandemic pathogen.
According to the researchers, the mode of transmission will most likely be respiratory. The pathogen will be contagious during the incubation period, before symptom development or when infected persons show only mild symptoms.
It will also need specific host population factors, such as immunologically naïve persons, and additional intrinsic microbial pathogenicity characteristics, such as a low but significant case fatality rate. These conditions can substantially increase disease spread and infection rates.
The report describes the pandemic potential of various categories of microbes and notes that RNA viruses are the biggest threat. It also included eight key recommendations, including preparedness efforts should have a focused but flexible approach; historical list-based approaches should not stultify preparedness efforts; and surveillance of human infections from respiratory-borne RNA viruses should be a higher priority.
“We hope policymakers and practitioners consider our recommendations in their work to strengthen health sector resilience and fortify pandemic preparedness,” Adalja said.
Adalja’s project team included senior scholar Eric Toner and senior analyst Matthew Watson.