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Scientists identified factors, helping predict the severity of viral epidemics

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Posted November 30, 2019

We can only be prepared to dangers that we can predict. If we cannot predict something, it is going to sneak up to us without us realizing what is happening. For example, newly emerging viruses such as Ebola, SARS and the Zika virus pose a huge risk on global health, but what is that risk? Can we predict it? Scientists from the University of Edinburgh say that we can.

The virulence of the virus can be predicted by its way of spreading and how many systems in the body it affects. Image credit: Brandon Farley via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ebola, SARS and the Zika virus are talked about all the time nowadays. And not for no reason. Mortality of ebola virus disease is 25–90%. Every outbreak get international coverage and people are afraid of what kind of an impact it is going to have. Especially since people love travelling nowadays and go to exotic places where they can catch ebola. SARS, or Severe acute respiratory syndrome, is no better. A major outbreak in 2002-2003 left thousands of people sich in China and many other countries, hundreds died. And Zika is a more recent talking point in media, as 2015–16 Zika virus epidemic killed many people and, as it is believed now, caused an increase in cases of microcephaly in children.

Now scientists trained a computer algorithm to test whether certain virus characteristics can predict its virulence (the severity of the disease the virus causes). Computer algorithms work much faster than humans could and research a vast pool of data at the same time. This time the algorithm showed that those viruses that affect multiple organs, nervous systems or renal systems and are associated with airborne and contact-based transmission have higher virulence. In other words, if the virus spreads through human contact and affects multiple systems of the body, the disease that it is going to cause is significantly more severe. Meanwhile, those viruses that spread easily and quickly between people do not appear to be as virulent according to this study.

Liam Brierley, one of the authors of the study, said: “We know that emerging human viruses can vary widely in how harmful they are and therefore the risk they pose to public health worldwide. When a new virus or disease is discovered or emerges it is currently hard to predict how harmful it will be and what impact it will have on populations worldwide”.

This information will allow scientists to identify the main characteristics of a virus that can be associated with the higher possible damage that it would cause. This will allow accurately predicting the possible outcome of an outbreak. At the same time, this computer algorithm could also be used again for specific cases – the method is already there.

 

Source: University of Edinburgh

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