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What is the likelihood of another coronavirus impacting us?

This article was published on
March 26, 2021

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Most people get infected with a coronavirus at some point in their lives, meaning that it is highly likely that coronaviruses will continue impacting us. The likelihood of another novel coronavirus emerging is less clear, but science suggests that the risks are high.

Most people get infected with a coronavirus at some point in their lives, meaning that it is highly likely that coronaviruses will continue impacting us. The likelihood of another novel coronavirus emerging is less clear, but science suggests that the risks are high.

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What our experts say

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Other coronaviruses include 229E, NL63, OC43, HKU1, which usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. Most people get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point in their lives, meaning that it is highly likely that coronaviruses will continue impacting us. 

The likelihood of another novel coronavirus emerging is less clear. Coronaviruses attracted limited interest from researchers until approximately 2003, when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was discovered and led to an epidemic. After the SARS outbreak, coronaviruses gained more interest and concern from the scientific community. Approximately a decade later, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) emerged. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries. The most recent new coronavirus to emerge is SARS-CoV-2, or the novel coronavirus that was discovered in 2019 and continues to impact the globe.

Sometimes, common coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve to make people sick. They become a new human coronavirus when two different kinds of coronavirus inhabit the same cell in an animal. SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all examples of types of coronaviruses that originate from animal hosts. 

These viruses are also known as zoonotic diseases. Scientists estimate that 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in people came from animals, and have found that climate change is driving the growth and expansion of zoonotic diseases. Climate change is a driver for multiple reasons. Temperature changes and changes in an animal’s habitat due to biodiversity loss provide new opportunities for pathogens to interact with and infect new species. 

All of this makes it possible that another new coronavirus could emerge in the near future. University of Liverpool researchers predicted, based on a computer analysis, that such events are much more likely than previously thought. The researchers recommended monitoring certain animal species for possible new coronavirus diseases. 

Ultimately there is no clear answer to if, or when, a new coronavirus may impact our global population. Further research and monitoring of potential new coronaviruses or potential animal hosts will help to predict—or ideally prevent—new coronaviruses from emerging.

Context and background

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Other coronaviruses, known by their number-letter codes, include 229E, NL63, OC43, HKU1, which usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold.

Resources

  1. COVID-19 Questions and Answers (WHO)
  2. Human Coronavirus Types (CDC)
  3. COVID-19: Emergence, Spread, Possible Treatments, and Global Burden (Frontiers in Public Health)
  4. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) (CDC)
  5. Evidence for SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses circulating in bats and pangolins in Southeast Asia (Nature)
  6. Changing climate may affect animal-to-human disease transfer (Science Daily)
  7. The potential for new coronavirus species to emerge may be greater than known, study shows (Chicago Tribune)
  8. Predicting mammalian hosts in which novel coronaviruses can be generated (Nature Communications)

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