ONE of the world’s leading authorities on viral evolution says the only way to reduce the threat of global pandemics is to “fix the politics”.

Professor Eddie Holmes, Australian Research Council Australian Laureate Fellow and member of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, told InSight+ in an exclusive podcast, that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was “quite extraordinary”.

“I’ve been doing work on emerging viruses for 30 plus years,” he said.

“I’ve probably published as much as anyone globally on this topic. In all the years I’ve been doing this work, I have never come across a virus that can infect as many different animal species as this one.

“It has some ability to just jump host species with remarkable ease – it’s an extraordinary thing. This is the most host-generous virus I’ve ever come across.”

When asked if Australia was doing enough to stop transmission of SARS-CoV-2, Professor Holmes was blunt.

“Nope,” he said.

“Overall, this country’s response has been good. Successive regimes, I think, have listened to the science. There have been some failures, but overall, it’s been pretty good.

“The major lessons that we’ve learned from this pandemic are the threat posed by wildlife and our interaction with wildlife and how we respond to that. And I don’t see evidence of systems being put in place that are going to stop that happening.

“What we need is some sort of global pandemic radar where we’re monitoring people who live and work at the human–animal interface – live animal markets, the wildlife trade, abattoirs, animal carers, and [veterinarians].

“They are on the frontline. We need to surveil those people, like the canaries in the coal mine. And then we take that data and we share it globally, rapidly. And as soon as something untoward happens, we quarantine in that area.

“Scientifically, that’s quite easy. Economically, it’ll cost billions, but it’s probably less than we’ve lost on the submarine deal, frankly.

“The problem is political. And until we can fix the politics, I don’t think we can fix pandemics.”

Professor Holmes said any implication the Omicron variant, which emerged in December 2021, was laboratory-made was disproved by the location of the first outbreak.

“It emerged in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are an enormous number of people who are immunocompromised, because of [human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)] and others,” he told InSight+.

“This virus, in immunocompromised hosts, evolves in a very different way, picks up lots and lots of mutations. In these people, it establishes long term persistent infections, and it picks up a whole slew of mutations.

“The reason why Omicron was not a [laboratory]-designed mutation – there’s no way on earth – is because it’s not just the spike protein that’s changed – the whole genome has changed. It’s picked up lots of mutations because it’s probably been in a compromised host.”

Professor Holmes lays the blame for the rapid evolution of SARS-CoV-2 squarely at the feet of Western nations who did not share their vaccines with poorer countries who needed them.

“Vaccine development has been phenomenal, but vaccine sharing has been abysmal,” he said.

“One of the reasons why the virus has been able to evolve the way it has is the fact that we didn’t give enough protection – we didn’t share our doses with countries that needed it.

“What it tells you is the fact that there are immunocompromised reservoirs of people out there, and we need to share our vaccine doses, not just because that is just ethically right.

“It also puts the brake on virus evolution. The fact that we’re wasting our Novavax doses and our [AstraZeneca] doses, is a crying shame.

“The Western world is guilty of doing that.”

Professor Holmes told InSight+ that, in the US, SARS-CoV-2 had now established reservoirs in possums, deer, mink and cats, among others, although it had not yet done so in animal populations in Australia.

What does that mean for our ability to suppress the virus?

“Absolutely, we’re stuck with this, probably forever,” Professor Holmes said.

“I don’t think it’s massively seasonal yet. What we tend to see when you get a new variant is global sweeps of that variant.

“If there’s no immunity, it spreads very easily. If there’s high immunity, it will only spread in the right kind of environmental conditions – temperature, humidity etc – and that’s when seasonality kicks in.

“But I don’t think we’re quite there yet. We’re still quite early on in the evolutionary phase of this thing.

“When a new virus emerges, in the first 4 or 5 years you tend to see a lot of stochastic wobble – a lot of chance effects going on because it’s not fully adapted.

“There’s a complicated set of factors going on – some populations are immune, some are not, global travel – all those things give us an up and down random kind of pattern.

“It will start to settle down, as it gets into this host-virus co-evolution. But we’re not quite there yet. We’re getting there, but we’ve got a while to go.”

Professor Holmes says that as far as future pandemics were concerned, there were three kinds of viruses that concerned him the most, all of them respiratory.

“Ebola is a horrendous thing because it causes terrible, terrible suffering, but that’s not going to cause a global pandemic because it needs direct contact with body fluids that pass it on. And we can always control that,” he said.

“Vector-borne viruses like dengue and yellow fever, horrendous though they are, they’re not going to cause a global pandemic because in the West at least, we can control mosquitos pretty well.

“The ones that worry me are the respiratory viruses because they’re the ones that are hardest to control.

“SARS-CoV-2 is your worst-case scenario, unfortunately, because it is a silent spreader. Asymptomatic transmission is incredibly hard to control,” said Professor Holmes.

“The three groups of respiratory viruses that worry me most are, obviously, the coronaviruses – we’re discovering new ones almost every day.

“Influenza viruses may sound kind of boring, but again, there is a huge diversity in wildlife, particularly birds. They’ve been brought into Australia all the time by birds and can be devastating.

“The other one is paramyxoviruses. In Australia, we have Hendra which is a paramyxovirus. Luckily, it’s very rare in humans but it gets into horses, and we think it comes from bats. In Asia, there’s Nipah virus, which is a relative of Hendra.”

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The original SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in Wuhan, was the result of a lab leak, either deliberate or accidental
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3 thoughts on “Fix the politics to fix pandemics, says expert

  1. Anonymous says:

    The way the pandemic was managed undermined immunisation and trust in programs in four ways. Firstly some leaders overstated the risks of Astra-Zenica, the cheapest, most ideal for underdeveloped countries and requiring less difficult storage and transport. Secondly we made vaccines mandatory and enforced that with punitive measures on some who didn’t want to be vaccinated while not being truthful about the benefits of the vaccines and the fact that transmission and infection could still occur, which made the population sceptical. Thirdly we didn’t follow our plans that had been made to manage pandemics. Fourthly we undermined our economies with little benefit for controlling the pandemic but massive damage to health and well being in other ways. All in all these behaviours led to conspiracy theories and an ongoing distrust in our systems. In Australia our States made this worse by not being consistent across our Nation.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I too – none the wiser – not sure the point of the article!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m none the wiser.
    What politics are to be fixed?
    What are the fixes?
    Apart apparently from private pharmaceutical companies needing to give vaccine away to the developing world.

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