A scientist who helped discover the devastating Ebola virus says a future pandemic will likely be “more apocalyptic” than coronavirus.
Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum has worked on the frontline of identifying new pathogens since 1976, when as a young researcher he took blood samples from victims of the then-unknown disease that killed almost 90% of patients.
Those samples were sent from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to scientists in Belgium and the US, who found a worm-shaped virus in patients’ blood that was named after the river Ebola.
It’s believed the disease, which causes vomiting and haemorrhaging as well as other horrific symptoms, first spread to humans from an animal – possibly a fruit bat.
Prof Muyembe now runs the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale (INRB) in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC and warns more zoonotic illnesses – where pathogens jump between animals and humans – are on the horizon.
“We are now in a world where new pathogens will come out,” he told CNN.
“And that’s what constitutes a threat for humanity.”
Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, with the prevailing theory still being that the virus made the jump to humans at a wet market in Wuhan at the end of last year.
The virus has upended the world, decimating economies and killing more than one and a half million people in 12 months.
But Prof Muyembe says future pandemics will be even more devastating, saying “yes, yes I think so” when asked if they will also be “more apocalyptic” than Covid.
Other public health experts have also warned that zoonotic diseases are on the rise due to untenable environmental practices.
The meat industry often keeps livestock in close, unhygienic quarters, increasing the likelihood of disease which can then spread to humans in environments like China’s wet markets.
The Congo has undergone massive ecological destruction in recent years, with huge stretches of rainforest felled – meaning the annihilation of habitats of a huge number of animals.
Many species simply die out, while smaller animals such as rats and bats survive and adapt to live alongside the humans who move into the deforested areas. This is when zoonotic diseases tend to thrive.
“If you go in the forest… you will change the ecology, and insects and rats will leave this place and come to the villages… so this is the transmission of the virus, of the new pathogens,” Prof Muyembe said.
One of the Congo’s main exports is “bushmeat” from crocodiles, turtles, chimpanzees and other exotic animals which are slaughtered and sold in the country’s own thriving wet markets.
Any of these animals could be harbouring a dangerous new virus just waiting to cross over to humans, and the fact that the meat is then shipped all over the world is of great concern to experts.
Doctors in Kinshasa are currently treating a woman showing signs of hemorrhagic fever.