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Which Primate Is the Most Likely Source of the Next Pandemic?

To help anticipate the next outbreak of an emerging infectious disease, scientists scrutinize our closest relatives in the animal kingdom

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This chimp may look innocent, but he may harbor any of dozens of diseases that infect humans. Photo by AfrikaForce

Anyone who has read a Richard Preston book, such as The Hot Zone or Panic in Level 4, knows the danger of tampering with wildlife. The story usually goes something like this: Intrepid explorers venture into a dark, bat infested cave in the heart of East Africa, only to encounter something unseen and living, which takes up residence in their bodies. Unknowingly infected, the happy travelers jump on a plane back to Europe or the States, spreading their deadly pathogen willy-nilly to every human they encounter upon the way. Those people, in turn, bring the novel virus or bacterium back home to strangers and loved ones alike. Before the world knows it, a pandemic has arrived.

This scenario may sound like fiction, but it’s exactly what infectious disease experts fear most. Most emerging infectious diseases in humans have indeed arisen from animals–think swine and bird flu (poultry and wild birds), SARS (unknown animals in Chinese markets), Ebola (probably bats) and HIV (non-human primates). Therefore, experts prioritize the task of figuring out which animals in which regions of the world are most prone to delivering the latest novel pathogen to hapless humanity.

With this in mind, researchers at Harvard University, the University of Granada and the University of Valencia set out to develop a new strategy for predicting the risk and rise of new diseases transmitted from animals before they happen, describing their efforts in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To narrow the hypothetical disease search down, the team chose to focus on non-human primates. Because monkeys and great apes are so closely related to us, their potential for developing and transmitting a pathogen suited to the human body is greater than the equivalent risk from animals such as birds or pigs. As a general rule, the more related species are, the greater the chances they can share a disease. The researchers gathered data from 140 species of primates. They overlaid that information with more than 6,000 infection records from those various primate species, representing 300 different pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, parasitic worms, protozoa, insects and fungus. This way, they could visualize which pathogens infect which species and where.

Like mapping links between who-knows-who in a social network, primates that shared pathogens were connected. This meant that the more pathogens an animal shared with other species, the more centrally located it was on the tangled web of the disease diagram.    

A diagram depicting shared parasites among primate species. Each bubble represents one species, with lines connecting species by shared pathogens. The larger the bubble, the more emerging infectious diseases that species harbors. The dark blue bubbles represent the top 10 primates that share the most emerging infectious diseases with humans. Photo by Gomez et al., via PNAS

From studying these charts, a few commonalities emerged. Animals at the center of the diagram tended to be those that lived in dense social groups and also covered a wide geographic range (yes, similar to humans). These species also tended to harbor parasites that are known to infect humans, including more pathogens identified as emerging infectious diseases. In other words, those species that occurred in the center of the diagram are the best positioned to kick off the next pandemic or horrific infectious disease, and thus should be the ones that experts should keep the closest watch on.

Such animals could qualify as “superspreaders,” or those that receive and transmit pathogens very often to other species.”The identification of species that behave as superspreaders is crucial for developing surveillance protocols and interventions aimed at preventing future disease emergence in human populations,” the authors write.

Apes appeared in the heart of the disease diagram and are among the species we should be most worried about, which is not surprising considering that diseases such as malaria and HIV first emerged from these animals. On the other hand, some non-ape primates, including baboons and vervet monkeys, also popped up in the center of the diagram and turn out to harbor many human emerging disease parasites. 

Currently, our ability to predict where, when and how new emerging infectious diseases might arise is “remarkably weak,” they continue, but if we can identify those sources before they become a problem we could prevent a potential health disaster on a regional or even global scale. This new approach for identifying animal risks, the authors write, could also be applied to other wildlife groups, such as rodents, bats, livestock and carnivores. “Our findings suggest that centrality may help to detect risks that might otherwise go unnoticed, and thus to predict disease emergence in advance of outbreaks—an important goal for stemming future zoonotic disease risks,” they conclude. 

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