Emerging viruses - a research Field that has changed
The field of emerging viruses has recently emerged from a small niche within virology, to an omnipresent global topic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has fully revealed the impact that an emerging virus can have, the past 20 years have already been replete with multiple viral epidemics. Right now, the world is facing ongoing circulation of SARS-CoV-2, an international outbreak of monkeypox virus, resurgence of polio and frequent Ebola virus outbreaks.
While many of the viral challenges we are dealing with have been unrecognized human viruses for centuries, others such as SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the animal world only recently. For many emerging viruses, their origins remain in the dark, and the chain of events leading to their emergence is not fully understood. Many more viruses with emergence potential are still hidden in wildlife, and among them might be the next pandemic.
Although these phenomena are unfortunately largely unpredictable, much knowledge has already been gained on emerging viruses in the last years, and the conditions under which they spread. However, public health responses struggle to react quickly enough, to adapt to changing information and to the unpredictability of such emergence events, all while viral transmission events take advantage of our interconnected and social lifestyle. Attempts to accurately predict the most recent epidemics have failed, but at the same time, SARS coronaviruses and monkeypox have been on the list of potentially emerging viruses for many years. Despite this, they still hit us by surprise.
In common to all those events are that the moment favorable conditions are met, viruses will take the chance to emerge or re-emerge. Alterations in our lifestyle and changes in our environment are increasing the contact zone between humans, livestock and wildlife, and a globally interconnected world allows newly emerged viruses to quickly move around. The human impact on earth’s ecosystems, termed by some the Anthropocene, will ultimately lead to more frequent outbreaks, with biodiversity loss and climate change accelerating the appearance of new pathogens, or forgotten and re-emerging pathogens.
However, during recent health crises, incredible scientific advances have been made, such as vaccines against Ebola and SARS-CoV-2, novel antiviral treatments, advances in novel diagnostic tools and the use of whole genome sequencing for surveillance. Yet determining how to best use these tools to stop and mitigate viral outbreaks before they become uncontrollable, how to ensure their fair global distribution and how to fight back the misinformation surrounding them and causing a parallel infodemic, is an ongoing challenge.
The symposium of Our Centre
Our Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases is dedicated to the better understanding of emerging viruses and has become a focal point for pandemic preparedness, diagnostics of emerging viruses and characterization of novel viruses in Switzerland and beyond. Our 3rd symposium “Covid-19 and beyond: Understanding emerging viral diseases and their public health impact” will follow up two earlier successful and inspiring meetings by bringing together scientists, public health experts and policy makers.
This two-day symposium will provide participants with a unique opportunity to foster exchanges and collaborations around high-level interventions given by world-class specialists on emerging viral diseases. Topics discussed will include key biological characteristics that promote the spread of these viral agents, recent epidemiological trends, clinical and public health impact of emerging viral diseases, new vaccines and medical strategies, what we can learn from ancient pathogens and how climate change will impact future emergence events. But the overarching topic of this meeting will be one central question: How can we prevent future outbreaks, and if we cannot prevent them, how can we be better prepared? What lessons can we learn from the failures of the Covid-19 pandemic? Which novel tools do we have, how can we use them, and ultimately: how can scientists, public health specialists and society work together to alleviate the impact of epidemics?
Geneva is home to WHO headquarters as well as to several other global health agencies and NGOs, and thus a near-ideal location to host this exceptional symposium. The symposium will be hosted as a hybrid symposium with an option for online participation as well as in-person attendance.
On behalf of the University of Geneva Faculty of Medicine and of the Geneva University Hospitals, we warmly welcome you and wish you a fruitful meeting.
Isabella Eckerle and Laurent Kaiser