“It’s only a matter of time until another pandemic arises,” said Dr. Camille Hamula (PhD), an associate professor in the Department of Pathology in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).
Hamula, who works as a clinical microbiologist at the Royal University Hospital, has extensive experience in respiratory virus testing, including COVID-19. Her areas of research interest include novel diagnostics, antimicrobial resistance and susceptibility testing.
The impact of the next global virus, or pandemic, will depend on the route of transmission for the virus, Hamula said. This year, respiratory virus H5N1—a subtype of avian influenza—has been circulating in Canadian birds.
From 1997-2019, there were 861 confirmed global human cases of H5N1. Of these confirmed cases, 455 people died—a 53 per cent mortality rate.
“If the route of transmission for a new pandemic virus is respiratory, many of the measures taken against COVID-19 will be effective against the new virus,” Hamula said.
With the development of mRNA vaccines to combat SARS CoV-2, a vaccine is an additional tool in the multitude of preventative measures currently utilized against pandemics.
Vaccines have a historical record of success against a range of viruses, from small pox and polio to Ebola and human papilloma virus (HPV).
“Vaccines don’t always prevent mild illness, but they can prevent severe outcomes, as in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “The COVID-19 vaccine decreases both viral transmission and the number of people that go to the ICU or die.”
Masks, hand-washing and social distancing round out the preventative measures to be taken against a respiratory virus, she added.
Hamula said masks decrease transmission of viruses. Some masks are better than others, such as N95 masks. N95 masks are required to be fitted to the wearer’s face—if there’s not an airtight seal, they are less effective.
Hamula noted that another effective preventative measure in combatting a virus is by implementing gathering restrictions.
“A lot of the ways that we have seen COVID-19 transmit in Saskatchewan is by gatherings—not necessarily large groups like a rock concert—but also small to medium sized groups of people gathering with friends and family,” she said.
“You can’t impose gathering restrictions forever, because it negatively impacts people’s quality of life,” she added. “But at the same time, if there’s a really nasty virus spreading, you need gathering restrictions to circuit-break the cycle of transmission.”
While restrictions are measures that can be taken to help reduce stress on the health care system, Hamula notes that health care systems should have sufficient capacity to handle some stress. “Buffers” such as additional ICU beds and better laboratory infrastructure are two examples of alleviating stress on the system.
“If you’re always running a health care system on a knife’s edge of minimum cost, you’re never going to have enough of a buffer for when things like a pandemic start happening,” she said.
Hamula also recommended that the robust surveillance measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic must remain in place to ensure global health organizations are aware of emerging viruses and SARS CoV-2 variants.
“We knew SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in China in 2019 months before it actually came here,” she said. “For the first few months in 2020, people kind of ignored it, assuming it wouldn’t come here. But the world is a much smaller place than it used to be.
“We have to assume any circulating virus detected in any part of the globe has the potential to spread to us.”