No, monkeypox viruses won’t cause the next pandemic. The pathogen is known, only its name is still misleading: the virus is native to rodents, and monkeys, like humans, are so-called false hosts. The virus is transmitted during sexual intercourse or by droplets during physical proximity, but not by aerosol. Vaccines are available; Great Britain already uses them for ring vaccinations. And there are effective antiviral drugs.
But the initial fear reflex in the face of reports of more than 160 infected people from 15 countries (as of Monday) raises important questions: What will protect us from the next pandemic, from pathogens that can jump from animals to humans?
The first answer is obvious: distance between humans and animals. Like Ebola in Africa, Corona has shown that species protection is health protection. It makes sense to leave bats alone in their ancestral habitats. But spacing them out also means drastically reducing factory farming and antibiotic use. The bridge from wild animals to farm animals to humans poses a high risk, especially in emerging and developing countries.
The second answer is health education in biodiversity hotspots. It is dangerous to drag wild animals out of the bush and roast them. Wet markets with exotic species are risky. And: Hands-off animals found dead and consumed in parts of Africa.
The third lesson from pandemics is that a consistent response can save many lives as early as possible. Rapid genetic testing can provide important clues in the case of unknown disease causes. Is the pathogen known? Are we dealing with a new variant? A global prevention team could respond quickly to local outbreaks. Bill Gates has thought through such a concept and would prefer to base a 3,000-person Epidemic Response and Mobilization Team at the World Health Organization (WHO). And what if a new virus does spread?
Our everyday knowledge of prevention is as fresh as it is useful: spacing, hygiene, masks. Governments, too, have learned how effective these non-pharmaceutical interventions are and how determined and early to use them. “If it looks like an overreaction, you’re probably doing the right thing,” is U.S. virologist Fauci’s rule of thumb.
But there is also some excellent news: In the Corona pandemic, not only have we been able to develop and approve effective vaccines very quickly. The new strategy of programmable mRNA vaccines also promises rapid responses to new pathogens in the future, provided their production is carefully secured.
Above all, however, the most critical bottleneck must be removed and the flow of information accelerated. Data must move faster than viruses. This also applies to coordinating government strategies against a pandemic.
The Corona pandemic has exposed decades of planning mistakes: Cities need to provide less space for traffic and much more room for people. They need to become resilient in their basic design: resistant to heavy rain and heat, more sustainable and local in their consumption patterns, and networked in their education, health, and mobility services.
That’s a long way from monkeypox? On the contrary, this is probably the most important finding: the necessary measures against pandemics, climate change, and species loss do not contradict each other. They pursue a common and attractive goal: a longer and better life.
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