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Why China’s top Covid expert is preparing for next global pandemic

Why China’s top Covid expert is preparing for next global pandemic
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Dr Zhang Wenhong, a prominent figure in China’s fight against Covid-19, is now leading efforts to understand the intersection of climate change and infectious diseases. Zhang, who gained nationwide recognition as the leader of Shanghai’s clinical expert team for Covid-19, is shifting his focus to address how a warming climate influences the mutation and spread of pathogens.

“Research examining this relationship will become a growing focus globally,” Zhang said. He explained that as the Earth’s climate changes, including the expansion of the tropics, the way pathogens evolve and mutate is also changing. A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres in 2020 found that ocean surface warming in subtropical regions is expanding the width of the tropics. “The reservoir of bacteria and viruses is expanding as the Earth warms,” Zhang added, noting that this will expose more animals to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections as vectors like ticks and mosquitoes find more habitable land.

As per a South China Morning Post report, the implications of this research are significant. In the United States, the incidence rates of encephalitis and Lyme disease, both spread by ticks, are increasing. Meanwhile, in China, mosquito-borne dengue fever is being found in areas where it had not thrived before, including the Yangtze River Basin. Zhang emphasized that climate change is also linked to high levels of malaria cases in Southeast Asian and African countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has indicated that climate change will affect the spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria due to changes in global temperature and precipitation patterns. There is a hypothesis that the Covid-19 pandemic spread to humans from bats, whose habitats are also expanding due to climate change. “So the work we are doing now is actually for the next pandemic,” Zhang said.

Zhang and other experts are working towards creating global disease management agreements and strategies. “[Scientists] mainly need to provide enough data, enough evidence, and provide corresponding suggestions,” he noted. This initiative involves collaboration with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and includes experts in climate change, public health, infectious disease control, and public policy, the SCMP report said.

The work aims to develop early warning systems for pandemics, combining expertise from different fields to provide comprehensive evidence for policymakers. Zhang highlighted the importance of this integrated approach, stating, “Using this platform, infectious disease experts and microbiologists can work with environmental experts and climate experts to conduct in-depth research on climate change and infectious diseases together.”

Moreover, Zhang stressed the importance of addressing antimicrobial resistance, which he described as a growing challenge exacerbated by environmental and climate changes. “An issue that scientists all over the world agree on is that by 2050, annually, 10 million people will die of drug resistance,” Zhang said.

To tackle these complex issues, the One Health initiative by WHO advocates for an integrated global approach, involving researchers, doctors, government officials, world organizations, and global communities. Although the world officially emerged from Covid-19 lockdowns last year, Zhang pointed out that the mutation and evolution of the virus “is still of great concern.”

Zhang concluded that ongoing research and surveillance are crucial for understanding and preparing for future pandemics. “It will have important implications for the future,” he emphasized, underscoring the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach to global health threats.



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