With the world in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, in April Horizon takes a step back to look at some of the challenges around sudden outbreaks of emerging diseases. We speak to virologist Prof. Marion Koopmans about the likelihood of future outbreaks of new diseases, what causes them and how to spot them before they appear. We speak to scientists who are helping to develop tests for Covid-19 to understand the challenges in coming up with an accurate and detailed diagnostic test for an entirely new disease. We talk to people working on coronavirus treatments about how to shorten the normally lengthy process of drug development. And we look into why diseases suddenly jump from animals, such as bats, into humans and the particular challenges of spotting and responding to these types of outbreaks.
What makes the Covid-19 pandemic so difficult to contain? Silent transmission by asymptomatic patients is partly responsible, but research emerging from Germany suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus has developed a second impressive strategy for ensuring its success: the ability to establish two separate communities within a host – the first in the throat, the second in the lungs. Early colonisation of the throat is responsible for the dangerous lag between a person being infectious and the onset of symptoms.
A vaccine is likely to take at least a year. A new drug could be a decade away. Even with the world’s resources focused, treatments against a new disease are difficult to create from scratch. However, repurposing existing drugs for other conditions could provide a much-needed shortcut.
A team that has spent the last five years developing a pipeline of technologies that can churn out a remedy for almost any newly emerging virus may have treatments ready for safety trials on Covid-19 patients by the end of the year.
We know that outbreaks like coronavirus will become more common in the future and tackling them is the Apollo programme of our time, according to Professor Marion Koopmans, head of the viroscience department at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
By 2050, the world's population will be an estimated 9.7bn people, up from today’s 7.7bn. To feed this growing population whilst also protecting the climate and biodiversity, our food system needs to change dramatically. In May, we look at what sort of future food system we want and how to get there. We speak to sustainability expert Prof. Peter Jackson about how lockdowns have exposed our reliance on fragile supply chains, and what needs to happen to shape a more sustainable food system. We look at the smart farming solutions that are being explored to support food producers, and urban experiments from tackling food waste to strengthening organic, local production to see how these efforts can be scaled up to make a big difference. And we investigate insects – a protein-rich food and feed source – and the efforts behind mainstreaming what is still a niche science.
Private companies are increasingly active in the space sector – from high-profile businesses such as SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to the nearly 3,000 small businesses that provide elements for the European Space Agency’s space programme. In March, Horizon explores the impact of this on research and innovation. We speak to a space law researcher about how to avoid the problems emerging from an increasingly crowded orbit, such as collisions. We look at how to minimise the environmental impact of satellites and delve into efforts to build a reusable European launcher for small payloads. We also look at the challenge of assembling, maintaining and repairing objects in space and the developments in space robotics that could help.
The iridescence of marble berries and the clever, light-bending perforations of microalgae are some lessons from nature that scientists are drawing upon to create biodegradable glitter and makeup pigments, and bionic algae to use in lasers or to clean pollutants.
Efforts to design a safe vaccine for Covid-19 are moving forward at full throttle, yet experts agree that it’s likely to be a year, at least, before an immunisation is ready. Meanwhile, scientists around Europe are exploring ingenious ways – including with the help of alpacas – to use the latest techniques in molecular manipulation to repair coronavirus-induced lung damage or to block the virus before it wreaks havoc.
Scientists are drawing on nature’s clever ways to build structures and produce iridescence.
Infection-halting therapies being explored include neutralising antibodies.
Metagenomics can help us spot emerging diseases such as coronavirus, says virologist Marion Koopmans.