One notable virus that health experts are worried about comes from the paramyxovirus family, which has over 75 viruses, including those responsible for measles, mumps and respiratory tract infections. Paramyxoviruses were added to the list of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases pandemic pathogens to watch last October.
One of the viruses of the paramyxovirus family is known as the Nipah virus. It can infect cells lining the central nervous system and vital organs through receptors that regulate what goes in or out of cells.
Compared to the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19), which has a fatality rate of around two percent, the Nipah virus has a fatality rate of 40 to 75 percent.
According to experts, unlike the flu and coronavirus which are "speedy shape-shifters," paramyxoviruses do not mutate as they spread. However, they have become very good at transmission among humans.
Michael Norris, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, explained that things could be worse if "a paramyxovirus emerged that was as contagious as measles and as deadly as Nipah."
Benhur Lee, a virologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said that influenza has been sequenced to death, but the same can't be said for paramyxoviruses, especially since most people infected with one do not survive. Lee warned that this makes it almost impossible to develop treatments.
While researchers have known about paramyxoviruses for more than a century, they still don't fully understand how the viruses move into new species and mutate to infect humans. To illustrate, the mumps virus was previously believed to infect only humans and select primates, but cases have also been discovered among bats.
Experts also still don't understand how paramyxoviruses can cause minor infections in one host but kill another. (Related: Australian research institute says WHO must have more power to enforce global pandemic rules.)
According to Paul Duprex, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, rubulaviruses, one of the paramyxovirus subfamilies that includes mumps, are also of concern. Humans, apes, dogs and pigs are natural hosts of these viruses and are easily infected in close quarters.
The measles virus is also a cause for concern. Measles was first documented in the 9th century by a Persian doctor. However, it was not until 1757 that a Scottish physician discovered an infectious agent in patients' blood that caused measles.
Emmie de Wit, chief of the molecular pathogenesis unit at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, suggested that measles could eventually be eradicated, ending the need for vaccinations. But when this happened with smallpox in 1980, monkeypox soon took its place.
A study published in the British Medical Journal warned that deaths from several viruses that spread from animals to humans are expected to increase at least 12-fold by 2050 because of factors like habitat encroachment.
Three viruses, namely, the filoviruses that cause Ebola and Marburg, the Nipah virus and the SARS virus, are currently on the World Health Organization’s list of priority pathogens because of their potential to cause the next pandemic.
The Ebola-like Machupo virus is also a contender, added the study authors. Regardless of which pathogen ends up starting the next global health crisis, researchers believe that they should all be studied.
Epidemics of these viruses could cause a combined death toll of more than 15,000 annually by 2050, even if they don’t make an evolutionary leap that allows them to decimate the globe. These zoonotic viruses could spread from animals to humans, who can then transmit them to other people.
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