Two years, six million deaths and still counting, scientists are searching for answers to prevent another COVID-19-like tragedy from ever occurring again. And it’s a gargantuan task.
Our disturbed ecosystems are creating more favorable conditions for the spread of infectious disease. Global warming, deforestation, rising sea levels and flooding have contributed to a rise in mosquito-borne infections and longer tick seasons. Disease-carrying animals are in closer range to other species and humans as they migrate to escape the heat. Bats are thought to have carried the SARS-CoV-2 virus to Wuhan, either directly or through another host animal, but thousands of novel viruses are lurking within other wild creatures.
Understanding how climate change contributes to the spread of disease is critical in predicting and thwarting future calamities. But the problem is that predictive models aren’t yet where they need to be for forecasting with certainty beyond the next year, as we could for weather, for instance.
The association between climate and infectious disease is poorly understood, says Irina Tezaur, a computational scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. “Correlations have been observed but it’s not known if these correlations translate to causal relationships.”
To make accurate longer-term predictions, scientists need more empirical data, multiple datasets specific to locations and diseases, and the ability to calculate risks that depend on unpredictable nature and human behavior. Another obstacle is that climate scientists and epidemiologists are not collaborating effectively, so some researchers are calling for a multidisciplinary approach, a new field called Outbreak Science.
Climate scientists are far ahead of epidemiologists in gathering essential data.
Earth System Models—combining the interactions of atmosphere, ocean, land, ice and biosphere—have been in place for two decades to monitor the effects of global climate change. These models must be combined with epidemiological and human model research, areas that are easily skewed by unpredictable elements, from extreme weather events to public environmental policy shifts.
“There is never just one driver in tracking the impact of climate on infectious disease,” says Joacim Rocklöv, a professor at the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health & Heidelberg Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing in Germany. Rocklöv has studied how climate affects vector-borne diseases—those transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, ticks or fleas. “You need to disentangle the variables to find out how much difference climate makes to the outcome and how much is other factors.” Determinants from deforestation to population density to lack of healthcare access influence the spread of disease.
Even though climate change is not the primary driver of infectious disease today, it poses a major threat to public health in the future, says Rocklöv.
The promise of predictive modeling
“Models are simplifications of a system we’re trying to understand,” says Jeremy Hess, who directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at University of Washington in Seattle. “They’re tools for learning that improve over time with new observations.”
Accurate predictions depend on high-quality, long-term observational data but models must start with assumptions. “It’s not possible to apply an evidence-based approach for the next 40 years,” says Rocklöv. “Using models to experiment and learn is the only way to figure out what climate means for infectious disease. We collect data and analyze what already happened. What we do today will not make a difference for several decades.”
To improve accuracy, scientists develop and draw on thousands of models to cover as many scenarios as possible. One model may capture the dynamics of disease transmission while another focuses on immunity data or ocean influences or seasonal components of a virus. Further, each model needs to be disease-specific and often location-specific to be useful.
“All models have biases so it’s important to use a suite of models,” Tezaur stresses.
The modeling scientist chooses the drivers of change and parameters based on the question explored. The drivers could be increased precipitation, poverty or mosquito prevalence, for instance. Later, the scientist may need to isolate the effect of one driver so that will require another model.
There have been some related successes, such as the latest models for mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue, Zika and malaria as well as those for flu and tick-borne diseases, says Hess.
Rocklöv was part of a research team that used test data from 2018 and 2019 to identify regions at risk for West Nile virus outbreaks. Using AI, scientists were able to forecast outbreaks of the virus for the entire transmission season in Europe. “In the end, we want data-driven models; that’s what AI can accomplish,” says Rocklöv. Other researchers are making an important headway in creating a framework to predict novel host–parasite interactions.
Modeling studies can run months, years or decades. “The scientist is working with layers of data. The challenge is how to transform and couple different models together on a planetary scale,” says Jeanne Fair, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Biosecurity and Public Health, in New Mexico.
Disease forecasting will require a significant investment into the infrastructure needed to collect data about the environment, vectors, and hosts a tall spatial and temporal resolutions.
And it’s a constantly changing picture. A modeling study in an April 2022 issue of Nature predicted that thousands of animals will migrate to cooler locales as temperatures rise. This means that various species will come into closer contact with people and other mammals for the first time. This is likely to increase the risk of emerging infectious disease transmitted from animals to humans, especially in Africa and Asia.
Other things can happen too. Global warming could precipitate viral mutations or new infectious diseases that don’t respond to antimicrobial treatments. Insecticide-resistant mosquitoes could evolve. Weather-related food insecurity could increase malnutrition and weaken people’s immune systems. And the impact of an epidemic will be worse if it co-occurs during a heatwave, flood, or drought, says Hess.
The devil is in the climate variables
Solid predictions about the future of climate and disease are not possible with so many uncertainties. Difficult-to-measure drivers must be added to the empirical model mix, such as land and water use, ecosystem changes or the public’s willingness to accept a vaccine or practice social distancing. Nor is there any precedent for calculating the effect of climate changes that are accelerating at a faster speed than ever before.
The most critical climate variables thought to influence disease spread are temperature, precipitation, humidity, sunshine and wind, according to Tezaur’s research. And then there are variables within variables. Influenza scientists, for example, found that warm winters were predictors of the most severe flu seasons in the following year.
The human factor may be the most challenging determinant. To what degree will people curtail greenhouse gas emissions, if at all? The swift development of effective COVID-19 vaccines was a game-changer, but will scientists be able to repeat it during the next pandemic? Plus, no model could predict the amount of internet-fueled COVID-19 misinformation, Fair noted. To tackle this issue, infectious disease teams are looking to include more sociologists and political scientists in their modeling.
Addressing the gaps
Currently, researchers are focusing on the near future, predicting for next year, says Fair. “When it comes to long-term, that’s where we have the most work to do.” While scientists cannot foresee how political influences and misinformation spread will affect models, they are positioned to make headway in collecting and assessing new data streams that have never been merged.
Disease forecasting will require a significant investment into the infrastructure needed to collect data about the environment, vectors, and hosts at all spatial and temporal resolutions, Fair and her co-authors stated in their recent study. For example real-time data on mosquito prevalence and diversity in various settings and times is limited or non-existent. Fair also would like to see standards set in mosquito data collection in every country. “Standardizing across the US would be a huge accomplishment,” she says.
Understanding how climate change contributes to the spread of disease is critical for thwarting future calamities.
Hess points to a dearth of data in local and regional datasets about how extreme weather events play out in different geographic locations. His research indicates that Africa and the Middle East experienced substantial climate shifts, for example, but are unrepresented in the evidentiary database, which limits conclusions. “A model for dengue may be good in Singapore but not necessarily in Port-au-Prince,” Hess explains. And, he adds, scientists need a way of evaluating models for how effective they are.
The hope, Rocklöv says, is that in the future we will have data-driven models rather than theoretical ones. In turn, sharper statistical analyses can inform resource allocation and intervention strategies to prevent outbreaks.
Most of all, experts emphasize that epidemiologists and climate scientists must stop working in silos. If scientists can successfully merge epidemiological data with climatic, biological, environmental, ecological and demographic data, they will make better predictions about complex disease patterns. Modeling “cross talk” and among disciplines and, in some cases, refusal to release data between countries is hindering discovery and advances.
It’s time for bold transdisciplinary action, says Hess. He points to initiatives that need funding in disease surveillance and control; developing and testing interventions; community education and social mobilization; decision-support analytics to predict when and where infections will emerge; advanced methodologies to improve modeling; training scientists in data management and integrated surveillance.
Establishing a new field of Outbreak Science to coordinate collaboration would accelerate progress. Investment in decision-support modeling tools for public health teams, policy makers, and other long-term planning stakeholders is imperative, too. We need to invest in programs that encourage people from climate modeling and epidemiology to work together in a cohesive fashion, says Tezaur. Joining forces is the only way to solve the formidable challenges ahead.
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”