In May 2022, Californian biotech Ultima Genomics announced that its UG 100 platform was capable of sequencing an entire human genome for just $100, a landmark moment in the history of the field. The announcement was particularly remarkable because few had previously heard of the company, a relative unknown in an industry long dominated by global giant Illumina which controls about 80 percent of the world’s sequencing market.
Ultima’s secret was to completely revamp many technical aspects of the way Illumina have traditionally deciphered DNA. The process usually involves first splitting the double helix DNA structure into single strands, then breaking these strands into short fragments which are laid out on a glass surface called a flow cell. When this flow cell is loaded into the sequencing machine, color-coded tags are attached to each individual base letter. A laser scans the bases individually while a camera simultaneously records the color associated with them, a process which is repeated until every single fragment has been sequenced.
Instead, Ultima has found a series of shortcuts to slash the cost and boost efficiency. “Ultima Genomics has developed a fundamentally new sequencing architecture designed to scale beyond conventional approaches,” says Josh Lauer, Ultima’s chief commercial officer.
This ‘new architecture’ is a series of subtle but highly impactful tweaks to the sequencing process ranging from replacing the costly flow cell with a silicon wafer which is both cheaper and allows more DNA to be read at once, to utilizing machine learning to convert optical data into usable information.
To put $100 genome in perspective, back in 2012 the cost of sequencing a single genome was around $10,000, a price tag which dropped to $1,000 a few years later. Before Ultima’s announcement, the cost of sequencing an individual genome was around $600.
Several studies have found that nearly 12 percent of healthy people who have their genome sequenced, then discover they have a variant pointing to a heightened risk of developing a disease that can be monitored, treated or prevented.
While Ultima’s new machine is not widely available yet, Illumina’s response has been rapid. Last month the company unveiled the NovaSeq X series, which it describes as its fastest most cost-efficient sequencing platform yet, capable of sequencing genomes at $200, with further price cuts likely to follow.
But what will the rapidly tumbling cost of sequencing actually mean for medicine? “Well to start with, obviously it’s going to mean more people getting their genome sequenced,” says Michael Snyder, professor of genetics at Stanford University. “It'll be a lot more accessible to people.”
At the moment sequencing is mainly limited to certain cancer patients where it is used to inform treatment options, and individuals with undiagnosed illnesses. In the past, initiatives such as SeqFirst have attempted further widen access to genome sequencing based on growing amounts of research illustrating the potential benefits of the technology in healthcare. Several studies have found that nearly 12 percent of healthy people who have their genome sequenced, then discover they have a variant pointing to a heightened risk of developing a disease that can be monitored, treated or prevented.
“While whole genome sequencing is not yet widely used in the U.S., it has started to come into pediatric critical care settings such as newborn intensive care units,” says Professor Michael Bamshad, who heads the genetic medicine division in the University of Washington’s pediatrics department. “It is also being used more often in outpatient clinical genetics services, particularly when conventional testing fails to identify explanatory variants.”
But the cost of sequencing itself is only one part of the price tag. The subsequent clinical interpretation and genetic counselling services often come to several thousand dollars, a cost which insurers are not always willing to pay.
As a result, while Bamshad and others hope that the arrival of the $100 genome will create new opportunities to use genetic testing in innovative ways, the most immediate benefits are likely to come in the realm of research.
There are numerous ways in which cheaper sequencing is likely to advance scientific research, for example the ability to collect data on much larger patient groups. This will be a major boon to scientists working on complex heterogeneous diseases such as schizophrenia or depression where there are many genes involved which all exert subtle effects, as well as substantial variance across the patient population. Bigger studies could help scientists identify subgroups of patients where the disease appears to be driven by similar gene variants, who can then be more precisely targeted with specific drugs.
If insurers can figure out the economics, Snyder even foresees a future where at a certain age, all of us can qualify for annual sequencing of our blood cells to search for early signs of cancer or the potential onset of other diseases like type 2 diabetes.
David Curtis, a genetics professor at University College London, says that scientists studying these illnesses have previously been forced to rely on genome-wide association studies which are limited because they only identify common gene variants. “We might see a significant increase in the number of large association studies using sequence data,” he says. “It would be far preferable to use this because it provides information about rare, potentially functional variants.”
Cheaper sequencing will also aid researchers working on diseases which have traditionally been underfunded. Bamshad cites cystic fibrosis, a condition which affects around 40,000 children and adults in the U.S., as one particularly pertinent example.
“Funds for gene discovery for rare diseases are very limited,” he says. “We’re one of three sites that did whole genome sequencing on 5,500 people with cystic fibrosis, but our statistical power is limited. A $100 genome would make it much more feasible to sequence everyone in the U.S. with cystic fibrosis and make it more likely that we discover novel risk factors and pathways influencing clinical outcomes.”
For progressive diseases that are more common like cancer and type 2 diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis and ALS, geneticists will be able to go even further and afford to sequence individual tumor cells or neurons at different time points. This will enable them to analyze how individual DNA modifications like methylation, change as the disease develops.
In the case of cancer, this could help scientists understand how tumors evolve to evade treatments. Within in a clinical setting, the ability to sequence not just one, but many different cells across a patient’s tumor could point to the combination of treatments which offer the best chance of eradicating the entire cancer.
“What happens at the moment with a solid tumor is you treat with one drug, and maybe 80 percent of that tumor is susceptible to that drug,” says Neil Ward, vice president and general manager in the EMEA region for genomics company PacBio. “But the other 20 percent of the tumor has already got mutations that make it resistant, which is probably why a lot of modern therapies extend life for sadly only a matter of months rather than curing, because they treat a big percentage of the tumor, but not the whole thing. So going forwards, I think that we will see genomics play a huge role in cancer treatments, through using multiple modalities to treat someone's cancer.”
If insurers can figure out the economics, Snyder even foresees a future where at a certain age, all of us can qualify for annual sequencing of our blood cells to search for early signs of cancer or the potential onset of other diseases like type 2 diabetes.
“There are companies already working on looking for cancer signatures in methylated DNA,” he says. “If it was determined that you had early stage cancer, pre-symptomatically, that could then be validated with targeted MRI, followed by surgery or chemotherapy. It makes a big difference catching cancer early. If there were signs of type 2 diabetes, you could start taking steps to mitigate your glucose rise, and possibly prevent it or at least delay the onset.”
This would already revolutionize the way we seek to prevent a whole range of illnesses, but others feel that the $100 genome could also usher in even more powerful and controversial preventative medicine schemes.
In the eyes of Kári Stefánsson, the Icelandic neurologist who been a visionary for so many advances in the field of human genetics over the last 25 years, the falling cost of sequencing means it will be feasible to sequence the genomes of every baby born.
“We have recently done an analysis of genomes in Iceland and the UK Biobank, and in 4 percent of people you find mutations that lead to serious disease, that can be prevented or dealt with,” says Stefansson, CEO of deCODE genetics, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical company Amgen. “This could transform our healthcare systems.”
As well as identifying newborns with rare diseases, this kind of genomic information could be used to compute a person’s risk score for developing chronic illnesses later in life. If for example, they have a higher than average risk of colon or breast cancer, they could be pre-emptively scheduled for annual colonoscopies or mammograms as soon as they hit adulthood.
To a limited extent, this is already happening. In the UK, Genomics England has launched the Newborn Genomes Programme, which plans to undertake whole-genome sequencing of up to 200,000 newborn babies, with the aim of enabling the early identification of rare genetic diseases.
"I have not had my own genome sequenced and I would not have wanted my parents to have agreed to this," Curtis says. "I don’t see that sequencing children for the sake of some vague, ill-defined benefits could ever be justifiable.”
However, some scientists feel that it is tricky to justify sequencing the genomes of apparently healthy babies, given the data privacy issues involved. They point out that we still know too little about the links which can be drawn between genetic information at birth, and risk of chronic illness later in life.
“I think there are very difficult ethical issues involved in sequencing children if there are no clear and immediate clinical benefits,” says Curtis. “They cannot consent to this process. I have not had my own genome sequenced and I would not have wanted my parents to have agreed to this. I don’t see that sequencing children for the sake of some vague, ill-defined benefits could ever be justifiable.”
Curtis points out that there are many inherent risks about this data being available. It may fall into the hands of insurance companies, and it could even be used by governments for surveillance purposes.
“Genetic sequence data is very useful indeed for forensic purposes. Its full potential has yet to be realized but identifying rare variants could provide a quick and easy way to find relatives of a perpetrator,” he says. “If large numbers of people had been sequenced in a healthcare system then it could be difficult for a future government to resist the temptation to use this as a resource to investigate serious crimes.”
While sequencing becoming more widely available will present difficult ethical and moral challenges, it will offer many benefits for society as a whole. Cheaper sequencing will help boost the diversity of genomic datasets which have traditionally been skewed towards individuals of white, European descent, meaning that much of the actionable medical information which has come out of these studies is not relevant to people of other ethnicities.
Ward predicts that in the coming years, the growing amount of genetic information will ultimately change the outcomes for many with rare, previously incurable illnesses.
“If you're the parent of a child that has a susceptible or a suspected rare genetic disease, their genome will get sequenced, and while sadly that doesn’t always lead to treatments, it’s building up a knowledge base so companies can spring up and target that niche of a disease,” he says. “As a result there’s a whole tidal wave of new therapies that are going to come to market over the next five years, as the genetic tools we have, mature and evolve.”
For more than two decades, Marci Flory, a 40-year-old emergency room nurse from Lawrence, Kan., has battled the recurring symptoms of chronic Lyme disease, an illness which she believes began after being bitten by a tick during her teenage years.
Over the years, Flory has been plagued by an array of mysterious ailments, ranging from fatigue to crippling pain in her eyes, joints and neck, and even postural tachycardia syndrome or PoTS, an abnormal increase in heart rate after sitting up or standing. Ten years ago, she began to experience the onset of neurological symptoms which ranged from brain fog to sudden headaches, and strange episodes of leg weakness which would leave her unable to walk.
“Initially doctors thought I had ALS, or less likely, multiple sclerosis,” she says. “But after repeated MRI scans for a year, they concluded I had a rare neurological condition called acute transverse myelitis.”
But Flory was not convinced. After ordering a variety of private blood tests, she discovered she was infected with a range of bacteria in the genus Borrelia that live in the guts of ticks, the infectious agents responsible for Lyme disease.
“It made sense,” she says. “Looking back, I was bitten in high school and misdiagnosed with mononucleosis. This was probably the start, and my immune system kept it under wraps for a while. The Lyme bacteria can burrow into every tissue in the body, go into cyst form and become dormant before reactivating.”
The reason why cases of Lyme disease are increasing is down to changing weather patterns, triggered by climate change, meaning that ticks are now found across a much wider geographic range than ever before.
When these species of bacteria are transmitted to humans, they can attack the nervous system, joints and even internal organs which can lead to serious health complications such as arthritis, meningitis and even heart failure. While Lyme disease can sometimes be successfully treated with antibiotics if spotted early on, not everyone responds to these drugs, and for patients who have developed chronic symptoms, there is no known cure. Flory says she knows of fellow Lyme disease patients who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking treatments.
Concerningly, statistics show that Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are on the rise. Recently released estimates based on health insurance records suggest that at least 476,000 Americans are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, and many experts believe the true figure is far higher.
The reason why the numbers are growing is down to changing weather patterns, triggered by climate change, meaning that ticks are now found across a much wider geographic range than ever before. Health insurance data shows that cases of Lyme disease have increased fourfold in rural parts of the U.S. over the last 15 years, and 65 percent in urban regions.
As a result, many scientists who have studied Lyme disease feel that it is paramount to bring some form of protective vaccine to market which can be offered to people living in the most at-risk areas.
“Even the increased awareness for Lyme disease has not stopped the cases,” says Eva Sapi, professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of New Haven. “Some of these patients are looking for answers for years, running from one doctor to another, so that is obviously a very big cost for our society at so many levels.”
Emerging vaccines – and backlash
But with the rising case numbers, interest has grown among the pharmaceutical industry and research communities. Vienna-based biotech Valneva have partnered with Pfizer to take their vaccine – a seasonal jab which offers protection against the six most common strains of Lyme disease in the northern hemisphere – into a Phase III clinical trial which began in August. Involving 6,000 participants in a number of U.S. states and northern Europe where Lyme disease is endemic, it could lead to a licensed vaccine by 2025, if it proves successful.
“For many years Lyme was considered a small market vaccine,” explains Monica E. Embers, assistant professor of parasitology at Tulane University in New Orleans. “Now we know that this is a much bigger problem, Pfizer has stepped up to invest in preventing this disease and other pharmaceutical companies may as well.”
Despite innovations, patient communities and their representatives remain ambivalent about the idea of a vaccine. Some of this skepticism dates back to the failed LYMErix vaccine which was developed in the late 1990s before being withdrawn from the market.
At the same time, scientists at Yale University are developing a messenger RNA vaccine which aims to train the immune system to respond to tick bites by exposing it to 19 proteins found in tick saliva. Whereas the Valneva vaccine targets the bacteria within ticks, the Yale vaccine attempts to provoke an instant and aggressive immune response at the site of the bite. This causes the tick to fall off and limits the potential for transmitting dangerous infections.
But despite these innovations, patient communities and their representatives remain ambivalent about the idea of a vaccine. Some of this skepticism dates back to the failed LYMErix vaccine which was developed in the late 1990s before being withdrawn from the market in 2002 after concerns were raised that it might induce autoimmune reactions in humans.
While this theory was ultimately disproved, the lingering stigma attached to LYMErix meant that most vaccine manufacturers chose to stay away from the disease for many years, something which Gregory Poland, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Minnesota, describes as a tragedy.
“Since 2002, we have not had a human Lyme vaccine in the U.S. despite the increasing number of cases,” says Poland. “Pretty much everyone in the field thinks they’re ten times higher than the official numbers, so you’re probably talking at least 400,000 each year. It’s an incredible burden but because of concerns about anti-vax protestors, until very recently, no manufacturer has wanted to touch this.”
Such was the backlash surrounding the failed LYMErix program that scientists have even explored the most creative of workarounds for protecting people in tick-populated regions, without needing to actually vaccinate them. One research program at the University of Tennessee came up with the idea of leaving food pellets containing a vaccine in woodland areas with the idea that rodents would eat the pellets, and the vaccine would then kill Borrelia bacteria within any ticks which subsequently fed on the animals.
Even the Pfizer-Valneva vaccine has been cautiously designed to try and allay any lingering concerns, two decades after LYMErix. “The concept is the same as the original LYMErix vaccine, but it has been made safer by removing regions that had the potential to induce autoimmunity,” says Embers. “There will always be individuals who oppose vaccines, Lyme or otherwise, but it will be a tremendous boost to public health to have the option.”
Researchers are also considering alternative immunization approaches in case sufficiently large numbers of people choose to reject any Lyme vaccine which gets approved. Researchers at UMass Chan Medical School have developed an artificially generated antibody, administered via an annual injection, which is capable of killing Borrelia bacteria in the guts of ticks before they can get into the human host.
So far animal studies have shown it to be 100 percent effective, while the scientists have completed a Phase I trial in which they tested it for safety on 48 volunteers in Nebraska. Because this approach provides the antibody directly, rather than triggering the human immune system to produce the antibody like a vaccine would, Embers predicts that it could be a viable alternative for the vaccine hesitant as well as providing an option for immunocompromised individuals who cannot produce enough of their own antibodies.
At the same time, many patient groups still raise concerns over the fact that numerous diagnostic tests for Lyme disease have been reported to have a poor accuracy. Without this, they argue that it is difficult to prove whether vaccines or any other form of immunization actually work. “If the disease is not understood enough to create a more accurate test and a universally accepted treatment protocol, particularly for those who weren’t treated promptly, how can we be sure about the efficacy of a vaccine?” says Natasha Metcalf, co-founder of the organization Lyme Disease UK.
Flory points out that there are so many different types of Borrelia bacteria which cause Lyme disease, that the immunizations being developed may only stop a proportion of cases. In addition, she says that chronic Lyme patients often report a whole myriad of co-infections which remain poorly understood and are likely to also be involved in the disease process.
Marci Flory undergoes an infusion in an attempt to treat her Lyme disease symptoms.
“I would love to see an effective Lyme vaccine but I have my reservations,” she says. “I am infected with four types of Borrelia bacteria, plus many co-infections – Babesia, Bartonella, Erlichiosis, Rickettsia, and Mycoplasma – all from a single Douglas County Kansas tick bite. Lyme never travels alone and the vaccine won’t protect against all the many strains of Borrelia and co-infections.”
Valneva CEO Thomas Lingelbach admits that the Pfizer-Valneva vaccine is not perfect, but predicts that it will still have significant impact if approved.
“We expect the vaccine to have 75 percent plus efficacy,” he says. “There is this legacy around the old Lyme vaccines, but the world is very, very different today. The number of clinical manifestations known to be caused by infection with Lyme Borreliosis has significantly increased, and the understanding around severity has certainly increased.”
Embers agrees that while it will still be important for doctors to monitor for other tick-borne infections which are not necessarily covered by the vaccine, having any clinically approved jab would still represent a major step forward in the fight against the disease.
“I think that any vaccine must be properly vetted, and these companies are performing extensive clinical trials to do just that,” she says. “Lyme is the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S. so the public health impact could be significant. However, clinicians and the general public must remain aware of all of the other tick-borne diseases such as Babesia and Anaplasma, and continue to screen for those when a tick bite is suspected.”
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.