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Biological factors predict which viruses will cause human epidemics

22 March 2016

The identification of biological factors that predict which viruses are most likely to spread among humans could help prevent and contain outbreaks, a study in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

Most emerging infections arise from the transmission of viruses from animals to humans, but don’t result in the sustained human-to-human transmission necessary to cause an epidemic. The early detection of viral infections capable of efficient transmission among humans is therefore critical for pandemic planning.

To address this issue, a team from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre compiled and analysed a database of 203 human viruses and used statistical models to identify biological factors that predict which viruses are most likely to successfully emerge in human populations.

“The probability of human-to-human transmission was increased by low host mortality and the ability to survive in the host for an extended time, both of which allow a virus more time to spread,” said the research paper’s lead author, Dr Jemma Geoghegan. “A good example of this is polyomaviruses – a family of viruses that infect humans but which rarely cause symptoms or illness.

“In contrast, viruses that possess a particular structure called an ‘envelope’ seem less able to emerge in humans because they are more easily degradable and not environmentally stable. In the same way, viruses that are transmitted by insect vectors, such as mosquitoes, are also less likely to spread among humans. So, although diseases like dengue and Zika have received a great deal of attention, they are very much the exception rather than the rule,” she said.

Study co-author, Professor Eddie Holmes added: "These biological factors could be used to predict which viruses are more likely to cause epidemics, enabling public health officials to take appropriate measures to prevent and contain these outbreaks."

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