Pandemics—Is the Next One on the Way?

Could one of these travelers be carrying a virus that causes the next pandemic?

Imagine that a new virus emerges and people have no immunity. There is no vaccine. If this were to happen, there could be mandatory travel restrictions, quarantines, and social distancing—including staying out of all crowded places. In the United States alone, such an outbreak could kill up to 2 million people. But how can such a virus emerge, and how can we prepare for it?


When a new virus emerges, it infects organisms that have not developed immunity, or resistance, to the virus. If a new virus infects humans, it may spread easily from person to person before a vaccine can be produced. A disease outbreak that affects large areas of the world and has a high fatality rate is called a pandemic. The disease is spread through infection—for example, by sneezing or coughing—to a great number of people, very quickly.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed about 50 million people worldwide.

The 1918 flu pandemic was the most devastating pandemic recorded in world history. This virus infected nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, killing about 50 million people worldwide. It spread mainly along global trade routes and with the movement of soldiers during World War I.

If a new and deadly disease emerges today, a carrier could travel around the world in 24 hours. Several million people travel internationally by plane every year, easily reaching their destinations before they show any symptoms of carrying a disease.

The “Perfect” Virus

Not every virus is well suited to cause massive human casualties. For many viruses, humans represent a dead-end infection because they cannot be passed from human to human. For other viruses, victims die too quickly for the virus to reproduce. Quarantines can contain this type of virus relatively easily.

What characteristics would make an emerging virus likely to cause a pandemic? The virus would need to be adapted to humans as hosts and easily spread through casual contact. Victims would also have to survive infection long enough without symptoms to go about their daily business and infect other people. Finally, the most deadly virus would mutate rapidly, foiling the attempts of scientists to develop a vaccine or a drug that targets it.

Diseases That Jump to New Species

A zoonosis is a disease that can jump between species. A virus that evolves the ability to jump from a nonhuman animal species to humans will spread very quickly in the human body, which has not yet developed defenses. If this virus exchanges genetic material with another human virus, the virus may become capable of spreading from person to person.

The swine flu pandemic was caused by the H1N1 virus that originated in pigs. In 2009, it was estimated that 22 million people were infected with the H1N1 virus! World health officials urged individuals to get vaccinated and educated people on its symptoms. A year later, the swine flu was declared officially contained.

Avian Flu H5N1

Perhaps the most familiar zoonosis is the avian flu virus. Sometimes called the bird flu, this virus normally infects wild birds such as ducks and geese as well as domestic birds such as chickens. Migrating birds can carry it to other continents.

Researchers have been tracking a form of avian flu called H5N1. Like other flu viruses, H5N1 mutates rapidly. Random mutations may or may not help the virus adapt to new host species. However, viruses can mutate in a faster, less random way. If an animal becomes infected with viruses from two different species at the same time, the viruses can exchange genetic information. If this happens, the avian flu can jump the species barrier, becoming a flu virus that can be transmitted from one human to another.

Unanswered Questions

Despite the danger that a new virus represents, no one knows how the virus may mutate or whether it will cause a pandemic. Some of the most important questions include the following:

    • How can vaccines be developed quickly enough to stop a disease that can spread in hours or days?
    • Can a broad-spectrum antiviral drug be developed that could target more than one flu virus?
    • What specific molecular factors allow a virus to jump from one species to another?

2020 UPDATE: The Next Pandemic Has Arrived: COVID-19

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness in humans and other animals. COVID-19 is a novel (or new) coronavirus that was discovered following an initial outbreak in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It was declared a pandemic following its spread across the globe.

COVID-19 is spread primarily from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth. It can also be spread by touching infected surfaces (such as railings, tables, or doorknobs) and then touching one’s eyes, nose, or mouth.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include a dry cough, tiredness, and fever. Other symptoms may include loss of sense of taste or smell, diarrhea, sore throat, headache, aches and pains, nasal congestion, or discoloration of skin on fingers or toes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 80% of people infected with COVID-19 recover from the disease without needing hospital treatment. However, around 20% of those infected by COVID-19 become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing. Particularly vulnerable populations include the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Current safety protocols include social distancing (maintaining a 6-foot distance between unrelated people), wearing facials masks that cover one’s nose and mouth, avoiding crowds, and frequently washing one’s hands.

Straight from the Headlines

Dissecting a Virus

Flu virus

H1N1 influenza virus

Scientists have long debated how the genetic material of influenza A viruses, RNA, is likely arranged. In 2005 virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin unraveled the mystery using a technique called electron tomography. Electron tomography is a way to construct a three-dimensional image from a series of electron microscope images taken at different angles. By making slices along flu virus particles that cut them into “top” and “bottom” halves,
researchers found that all influenza A viruses have a total of eight RNA strands. As shown at the right, seven strands form a circle just inside the edge of the virus particle, surrounding an eighth strand in the center.

Based on this similarity in structure, the researchers concluded that all influenza A viruses must share a specific mechanism for packaging their genetic material. This knowledge may make it possible to engineer viruses that can be used to mass produce vaccines to defend against these viruses, which are
responsible for regular seasonal outbreaks as well as the avian flu.

Epidemiologist in Action

Dr. Ben Muneta
Title: Medical Epidemiologist, Indian
Health Service
Education: M.D., Stanford University

In 1993, a mystery disease began to kill people in the southwestern United States. One of the experts that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) consulted was Dr. Ben Muneta. Dr. Muneta is an epidemiologist, a scientist who studies the causes, transmission, and control of diseases within a population. He works at the Indian Health Service National Epidemiology
Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Dr. Muneta consulted a traditional Navajo healer. From him, Dr. Muneta learned that the disease was associated with extra rainfall, which had caused the pinon trees to produce more nuts than usual. This in turn had led to a population explosion among mice that feed on these nuts.

Using this lead, CDC researchers determined that the disease was caused by hantavirus, a virus spread through the droppings of deer mice. With further research, Dr. Muneta confirmed that some Navajo healers had even predicted the 1993 outbreak.


  1. cooooooooooooooool

  2. Love this

  3. so chill bro. You make me jealous.

  4. David s, Azito says

    what are to be done, and what not to be done.

  5. Jamey Rhea says

    when you walkin

  6. TaJuana Bowie says

    No one is ever prepared for a virus to come across you . Unless there has been a research over the virus and ways to be prepared.

  7. Alec Perry says

    no one can prepare for a virus fully.

  8. Alex Mace says

    I believe that viruses are going to be the thing, if any, to kill all life. They don’t need anything and an undetected Arial virus could wipe out the planet. It just has to mutate. This brings me back to the first question I had in the beginning of genetic information, could mutations be good for humans? If they work for viruses, humans could mutate to be immune to the virus or give us the ability to photosynthesize. But what this article told me is that viruses are probably going to be the end of the world

  9. Alec Perry says

    no one can prepare for a virus fully because we dont know exactly what to prepare for.

  10. Hailey McIntire says

    I think that some viruses are more dangerous than most. Especially if there is an outbreak.

  11. yahir hernandez says

    I think we should prevent things by closeing airports up

  12. Dalton Glasco says

    How can vaccines be developed quickly enough to stop a disease that can spread in hours or days?
    we have to guess before the virus originates of how it will mutate
    Can a broad-spectrum antiviral drug be developed that could target more than one flu virus?
    yes it can
    What specific molecular factors allow a virus to jump from one species to another?though sneezing and coughing

  13. I think that this website is very informational. It gives valuable information for people with questions about pandemics and how the function.

  14. This is helpful considering the current situation with the Coronavirus. It is interesting how these viruses spread and how they have in the past. It is always good to be able to know how to prevent the virus from spreading and what causes it. Overall I believe that this is an informative article with very useful information.

  15. Elijah Davis says

    I think that this article has good information in it.

  16. Caleb Sipes says

    I think this has helped me understand diseases and viruses.It helped me understand the types of viruses there are and how they work.It taught me how the disease can spread and how fast it can spread and where it can spread.It also taught me who can and cant get the disease or virus.It also taught me that some of the diseases can be prevented from vaccines and other type of medicine.I think this has really helped me and informed me about how to protect myself and know what to do about a virus or disease.

  17. kerrigan biggs says

    This artical makes me think about the revelance to todays problems. This makes me understand the struggle of trying to get a epidimic to cure all of these viruses. This also makes me wonder how scientist work with all of the viruses and never catch any.

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