The next pandemic is “simmering in the background”, experts have warned, and could be the most contagious and devastating in history.
Dubbed the “Big One”, the Nipah virus is able to infect the cells that line the central nervous system and vital organs – and then regulate what can access or leave them. It recently had an outbreak in India.
It is a member of the paramyxovirus family of over 75 viruses, including mumps, measles and respiratory tract infections.
The family was added to the list of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ pandemic pathogens to watch in October.
While the Covid-19 virus had a fatality rate of under one percent, the Nipah virus has one reaching between 40 and 75 percent.
Viruses like the flu and Covid are “speedy shape-shifters”, scientists say, able to mutate and adapt.
Paramyxoviruses, meanwhile, do not mutate as they spread – but regardless have become “very good at transmission among humans”.
In a statement Michael Norris, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said: “Just imagine if a paramyxovirus emerged that was as contagious as measles and as deadly as Nipah.”
The high mortality rate also makes paramyxoviruses particularly difficult to develop treatments and vaccines for.
The lethal, brain-swelling Nipah virus had its fourth outbreak in five years in India in recent months.
Six people were infected, two of whom died.
Over 53,000 houses were searched for evidence of the virus and over 1,200 people contacted following the outbreak, the World Health Organisation said.
While the virus was quickly contained in this instance, analysts warn that its rapid spread highlight the dangers in focusing only on containment as a measure against disease.
A key danger among paramyxoviruses lies in their ability to jump from different species.
Governments, health experts say, must also control land development and protect animal habitats in areas where there is high risk of pathogens leaping from animals to people, a phenomenon known as spillover, Reuters reports.
Subrat Mohapatra, a forestry official in India’s environment ministry, said: “We have learned to manage the spillovers, but we have to constantly keep track of the high-risk zones as if they are volcanoes waiting to erupt.”
For instance, mumps were long believed only to infect humans and select primates, but cases were found among bats.
A 2022 report named Strengthening Australia’s Pandemic Preparedness said: “As the world continues to better understand these connections between human, animal, plant and environmental health, viruses are moving from animals to humans at ‘alarming rates.
“In addition to known viruses, on average, two novel viruses appear in humans each year, and the proportion that gives rise to larger outbreaks is growing.
“Many of these viruses have pandemic potential – the potential to spread across multiple continents.”
A recent report by the WHO would require countries to conduct risk assessments for spillover as well as to “monitor and mitigate environmental factors associated with the risk of zoonotic disease spillover.”
Deforestation, urbanization and intensive farming have all been linked to spillover in research.