The 21st Century Pandemics: What Does the Future Hold?

Pandemics have made appearances throughout history and many a time, are credited with exceptional events and periods like the Renaissance (which took place after the Black Death) and the Roaring 20’s (which followed the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early 20th century). But what is often overlooked in history lessons but we, as a community, have learnt over the past two years is how scary and devastating these pandemics are. No amount of hope for a more golden period in the future can give anyone the strength to endure such a difficult time. Not without breaking down once in a while at the very least. It is important to acknowledge the urgency of the medical threats that the human world is currently facing or is expected to face shortly and take action accordingly. Some problems can be prevented while some can be made tractable. This article discusses three such threats and what the future holds for us. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic 

Quite honestly, there is not much I could add to the knowledge that almost each one of us already possess about the ongoing pandemic due to the fear surrounding the same. At the time of writing this article, the Omicron variant, which is 25% more infectious than the Delta variant, is causing panic and claiming lives across several countries. Therefore, yes, it is present and will most likely continue to be a cause for concern for a while. 

How long this pandemic is going to continue is up for debate. It is dependent on multiple factors: how fast can the booster doses of the vaccines, that are effective against the Omicron variant, be rolled out; whether oral therapeutics can be scaled and made available to the public to restrict an infection to a mild one; and whether the society is capable of taking notes from the mistakes committed over the last two years and make urgent changes. For now, it is safe to say that we might have to hang on to the masks and take necessary COVID-19 safety precautions for a while. 

The Permafrost Pandemic

The possible permafrost pandemic is something that the scientific community and everyone else outside has been studying and debating for the last couple of years. Siberia and other parts of the Arctic have been facing record-breaking heat waves recently. Land surface temperatures as high as 45°C have been recorded, and studies have confirmed that the Arctic is heating up almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet. And this is all thanks to the much questioned and quoted phenomenon of 'global warming'. Global warming is very simply the warming up of the planet. This is primarily caused by the Greenhouse Effect. 

An increase in the number of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and methane in our atmosphere results in the formation of a sort of a blanket that traps the sun’s heat, resulting in climate change. GHGs are released by the burning of fossil fuels, among various other sources. Deforestation too has a huge contribution in this matter. Trees are capable of absorbing CO2 and giving out oxygen. In the absence of trees, this process does not occur, resulting in the accumulation of CO2. 

Before we get into the details of the possible permafrost pandemic, it is important to understand what the term 'permafrost' really means. It refers to any kind of earth material like soil or gravel which has been at or under 0°C for two or more consecutive years. This definition, contrary to popular belief, does not include the glacial or sea ice. The thawing of the permafrost is what has been bothering scientists for a while. Apart from being the main cause of the ever-rising sea levels and the runaway climate change due to the release of the greenhouse gases trapped within, it might have several disease-causing microbes frozen at the moment which may be released eventually. The thawing of the permafrost is a phenomenon that has been around for no longer than the last two decades. It is only in its fetal stages and the process is likely to be expedited by the way the world is run today. 

The active layer of the permafrost is in the form of water over the summer. It has been growing for a while now and is capable of forming a habitat for the newly thawed microbes. Essential biological processes can be activated here. The talik layer of the permafrost is rarely frozen. The microbes can even move to this layer and this would ensure that they are not frozen again. While the scientific community is in agreement that bacteria can survive for quite a long time, how long they can survive is still a matter of inquiry. Researchers have been attempting to revive ancient viruses from permafrost samples to determine the possibility of a pandemic caused by newly thawed microbes. 

Generally, DNA viruses are the most feared in this matter. Being more chemically stable than RNA viruses, they are more likely to survive the process of freezing and thawing. The two known possible viruses that could emerge from the permafrost are pox and anthrax. However, several other microbes are yet unknown and could be even more deadly than those known to mankind presently. Exactly how dangerous this possible permafrost pandemic could be is one of the many questions that the scientific community is unable to answer or agree on. 

The problem is exacerbated by the refusal of a portion of the human population to acknowledge the existence and effects of global warming. Barely anything at all is being done to tackle climate change. However, it is very clear that preparing the health systems for a permafrost pandemic eventuality and working to reverse climate change are the main, and perhaps, the only ways to survive it. 

The Silent Pandemic 

Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), meaning resistance to antimicrobial drugs possessed by certain microbes, is a popular term in the scientific and medical communities. This is more so because of the ever-increasing fear of a pandemic due to diseases caused by microbes resistant to all existing drugs, also known as 'superbugs'. Superbugs kill about 700,000 (estimated) people each year and the statistics are predicted to cross ten million by the year 2050. 

Antibiotics have been around since the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. They have revolutionised our lives by adding 23 years to the average life span and by becoming an integral part of modern medical practices. When a person suffers from a bacterial disease, they are offered antibiotics and this kills some of the bacteria. The remaining microbes, which are resistant to the drug, survive and proliferate. This leads to the existence of panic-inducing superbugs that are resistant to all known drugs. It makes it difficult and, in some cases, impossible to cure previously tractable diseases. Densely populated regions of the world with poor sanitary conditions and water quality are feared to be more susceptible to the possibility of becoming epicentres of outbreaks of superbugs. The change in microbes that make them resistant to drugs is unstoppable. When antibiotics are overused (much like it is today), microbes are exponentially more likely to become resistant. If the situation is not handled exigently, minor infections may turn fatal. This is known as the silent pandemic. 

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a hand in making the situation much worse. Studies have demonstrated that over 70% of COVID-19 patients have been administered antibiotic treatment despite only 10% of the cases having bacterial infections. This was especially because in the embryonic stages of the pandemic it was difficult to distinguish between a bacterial infection and COVID-19 infection. Later, the fear of bacterial co-infections caused the overuse of antibiotic drugs. 

We must spread awareness about AMR and the overuse of antibiotics. Otherwise, they will soon be rendered ineffective and alternative treatment may be required to tackle diseases. This might have even more severe side effects or may not be effective at all. Prudent use of antibiotics can decelerate the AMR, ensuring their availability to treat microbial infections effectively in the future. 

The aim of this article is not to create fear but to point out that neglecting concerns like those that preceded the outbreak of COVID-19 could result in other, perhaps even more catastrophic, pandemics. It is important to learn from our past mistakes when it comes to handling diseases. It is also important to know that it is practicable to reduce the possible effects or even prevent certain disastrous eventualities. All it takes is to have an open mind, make changes in our lifestyles and carry out proper scientific research to address the problems.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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