New tools could catch disease outbreaks earlier - or predict them
Every year, the villages which lie in the so-called ‘Nipah belt’— which stretches along the western border between Bangladesh and India, brace themselves for the latest outbreak. For since 1998, when Nipah virus—a form of hemorrhagic fever most common in Bangladesh—first spilled over into humans, it has been a grim annual visitor to the people of this region.
With a 70 percent fatality rate, no vaccine, and no known treatments, Nipah virus has been dubbed in the Western world as ‘the worst disease no one has ever heard of.’ Currently, outbreaks tend to be relatively contained because it is not very transmissible. The virus circulates throughout Asia in fruit eating bats, and only tends to be passed on to people who consume contaminated date palm sap, a sweet drink which is harvested across Bangladesh.
But as SARS-CoV-2 has shown the world, this can quickly change.
“Nipah virus is among what virologists call ‘the Big 10,’ along with things like Lassa fever and Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever,” says Noam Ross, a disease ecologist at New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance. “These are pretty dangerous viruses from a lethality perspective, which don’t currently have the capacity to spread into broader human populations. But that can evolve, and you could very well see a variant emerge that has human-human transmission capability.”
That’s not an overstatement. Surveys suggest that mammals harbour about 40,000 viruses, with roughly a quarter capable of infecting humans. The vast majority never get a chance to do so because we don’t encounter them, but climate change can alter that. Recent studies have found that as animals relocate to new habitats due to shifting environmental conditions, the coming decades will bring around 300,000 first encounters between species which normally don’t interact, especially in tropical Africa and southeast Asia. All these interactions will make it far more likely for hitherto unknown viruses to cross paths with humans.
That’s why for the last 16 years, EcoHealth Alliance has been conducting ongoing viral surveillance projects across Bangladesh. The goal is to understand why Nipah is so much more prevalent in the western part of the country, compared to the east, and keep a watchful eye out for new Nipah strains as well as other dangerous pathogens like Ebola.
"There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them," says Cat Lippi, medical geography researcher at the University of Florida.
Until very recently this kind of work has been hampered by the limitations of viral surveillance technology. The PREDICT project, a $200 million initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which conducted surveillance across the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin and extensive parts of South and Southeast Asia, relied upon so-called nucleic acid assays which enabled scientists to search for the genetic material of viruses in animal samples.
However, the project came under criticism for being highly inefficient. “That approach requires a big sampling effort, because of the rarity of individual infections,” says Ross. “Any particular animal may be infected for a couple of weeks, maybe once or twice in its lifetime. So if you sample thousands and thousands of animals, you'll eventually get one that has an Ebola virus infection right now.”
Ross explains that there is now far more interest in serological sampling—the scientific term for the process of drawing blood for antibody testing. By searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals, scientists have a greater chance of detecting viruses which started circulating recently.
Despite the controversy surrounding EcoHealth Alliance’s involvement in so-called gain of function research—experiments that study whether viruses might mutate into deadlier strains—the organization’s separate efforts to stay one step ahead of pathogen evolution are key to stopping the next pandemic.
“Having really cheap and fast surveillance is really important,” says Ross. “Particularly in a place where there's persistent, low level, moderate infections that potentially have the ability to develop into more epidemic or pandemic situations. It means there’s a pathway that something more dangerous can come through."
Scientists are searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals in hopes to detect viruses that recently started circulating.
In Bangladesh, EcoHealth Alliance is attempting to do this using a newer serological technology known as a multiplex Luminex assay, which tests samples against a panel of known antibodies against many different viruses. It collects what Ross describes as a ‘footprint of information,’ which allows scientists to tell whether the sample contains the presence of a known pathogen or something completely different and needs to be investigated further.
By using this technology to sample human and animal populations across the country, they hope to gain an idea of whether there are any novel Nipah virus variants or strains from the same family, as well as other deadly viral families like Ebola.
This is just one of several novel tools being used for viral discovery in surveillance projects around the globe. Multiple research groups are taking PREDICT’s approach of looking for novel viruses in animals in various hotspots. They collect environmental DNA—mucus, faeces or shed skin left behind in soil, sediment or water—which can then be genetically sequenced.
Five years ago, this would have been a painstaking work requiring bringing collected samples back to labs. Today, thanks to the vast amounts of money spent on new technologies during COVID-19, researchers now have portable sequencing tools they can take out into the field.
Christopher Jerde, a researcher at the UC Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute, points to the Oxford Nanopore MinION sequencer as one example. “I tried one of the early versions of it four years ago, and it was miserable,” he says. “But they’ve really improved, and what we’re going to be able to do in the next five to ten years will be amazing. Instead of having to carefully transport samples back to the lab, we're going to have cigar box-shaped sequencers that we take into the field, plug into a laptop, and do the whole sequencing of an organism.”
In the past, viral surveillance has had to be very targeted and focused on known families of viruses, potentially missing new, previously unknown zoonotic pathogens. Jerde says that the rise of portable sequencers will lead to what he describes as “true surveillance.”
“Before, this was just too complex,” he says. “It had to be very focused, for example, looking for SARS-type viruses. Now we’re able to say, ‘Tell us all the viruses that are here?’ And this will give us true surveillance – we’ll be able to see the diversity of all the pathogens which are in these spots and have an understanding of which ones are coming into the population and causing damage.”
But being able to discover more viruses also comes with certain challenges. Some scientists fear that the speed of viral discovery will soon outpace the human capacity to analyze them all and assess the threat that they pose to us.
“I think we're already there,” says Jason Ladner, assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute. “If you look at all the papers on the expanding RNA virus sphere, there are all of these deposited partial or complete viral sequences in groups that we just don't know anything really about yet.” Bats, for example, carry a myriad of viruses, whose ability to infect human cells we understand very poorly.
Cultivating these viruses under laboratory conditions and testing them on organoids— miniature, simplified versions of organs created from stem cells—can help with these assessments, but it is a slow and painstaking work. One hope is that in the future, machine learning could help automate this process. The new SpillOver Viral Risk Ranking platform aims to assess the risk level of a given virus based on 31 different metrics, while other computer models have tried to do the same based on the similarity of a virus’s genomic sequence to known zoonotic threats.
However, Ladner says that these types of comparisons are still overly simplistic. For one thing, scientists are still only aware of a few hundred zoonotic viruses, which is a very limited data sample for accurately assessing a novel pathogen. Instead, he says that there is a need for virologists to develop models which can determine viral compatibility with human cells, based on genomic data.
“One thing which is really useful, but can be challenging to do, is understand the cell surface receptors that a given virus might use,” he says. “Understanding whether a virus is likely to be able to use proteins on the surface of human cells to gain entry can be very informative.”
As the Earth’s climate heats up, scientists also need to better model the so-called vector borne diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. Transmitted by the Aedes mosquito residing in humid climates, these blights currently disproportionally affect people in low-income nations. But predictions suggest that as the planet warms and the pests find new homes, an estimated one billion people who currently don’t encounter them might be threatened by their bites by 2080. “When it comes to mosquito-borne diseases we have to worry about shifts in suitable habitat,” says Cat Lippi, a medical geography researcher at the University of Florida. “As climate patterns change on these big scales, we expect to see shifts in where people will be at risk for contracting these diseases.”
Public health practitioners and government decision-makers need tools to make climate-informed decisions about the evolving threat of different infectious diseases. Some projects are already underway. An ongoing collaboration between the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and researchers in Brazil and Peru is utilizing drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquitoes change their breeding patterns in response to climate shifts. This information will then be fed into computer algorithms to predict the impact of mosquito-borne illnesses on different regions.
The team at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies is using drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquito breeding patterns change due to climate shifts.
Lippi says that similar models are urgently needed to predict how changing climate patterns affect respiratory, foodborne, waterborne and soilborne illnesses. The UK-based Wellcome Trust has allocated significant assets to fund such projects, which should allow scientists to monitor the impact of climate on a much broader range of infections. “There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them,” she says.
COVID-19’s havoc boosted funding for infectious disease research, but as its threats begin to fade from policymakers’ focus, the money may dry up. Meanwhile, scientists warn that another major infectious disease outbreak is inevitable, potentially within the next decade, so combing the planet for pathogens is vital. “Surveillance is ultimately a really boring thing that a lot of people don't want to put money into, until we have a wide scale pandemic,” Jerde says, but that vigilance is key to thwarting the next deadly horror. “It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to keep looking.”
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.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
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 new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”