Emerging viruses

© Cameron Baines

What is an emerging virus?

An emerging disease, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a disease which has appeared in a population for the first time, or that might have existed previously, but is rapidly increasing in incidence or geographical range. 

Over the years a number of novel pathogens continue to emerge in human, domestic animal, wildlife and plant populations. Emerging and re-emerging viruses will be a continuing threat to human health because of their amazing potential to adapt to their current hosts, to switch to new hosts and to evolve strategies to escape antiviral measures.

Emerging viruses are not restricted to the developing world and stark lessons and significant economic costs are associated with the to-this-day-unexplained introduction of West Nile virus into the USA. This crystallises why these emerging pathogens matter from both public health and economic standpoints.

Why does understanding emerging viruses matter to microbiology?

When an unknown disease emerges it can be more of a challenge to marshall and develop countermeasures, by which point the disease can continue to spread, leading populations feeling vulnerable to its impact. We are aware that virtually all emergent diseases have their genesis in animal populations, largely wildlife.

In January 2020, China saw an outbreak of a new coronavirus strain now named SARS-CoV-2. The emergence of this virus, which has spread around the world and become a pandemic, demonstrates that it has been evermore important to study and develop an understanding of emerging viruses and how we can treat them. 

The opportunities that we have, are to look at emergent threats and identify, characterise and understand them before they fully emerge. This can be actioned through strategic surveillance and identifying what future threats lie in animal populations, using data to develop interventions and apply these to the family of viruses to develop suitable countermeasures. 

Read more about why understanding emerging viruses matters to our members and the wider microbiology community; access our resources, which detail what we currently understand about emerging viruses, and continue to read more about why understanding viruses matters to microbiology as we explore how viruses are treated. 

  • Microbiologists working in this area

    To celebrate our 75th anniversary in 2020, we invited microbiologists to nominate the discovery or event that best showcases why microbiology matters and helps us demonstrate the impact of microbiologists past, present and future. Learn more about the microbiologists whose research focuses on emerging viruses.

  • Resources and further reading

    Discover more about emerging viruses including Chikungunya, an emerging viral infection carried by mosquitoes, the history of arboviruses, and emerging fungal pathogens, and read more about how scientists are tackling the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in our Coronstream blog series.

  • How viruses are treated

    There are a number of different methods that are available to treat certain viruses, however the rise of antimicrobial resistance has proved a challenge, therefore the development of novel therapeutics and techniques to help prevent transmission and ease the risk of global outbreaks, has had a pivotal role in the world of microbiology.

  • SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 Hub

    Access all content published by the Microbiology Society
    relating to SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19 in our digital hub.

  • Monkeypox

    Monkeypox is caused by the monkeypox virus, a DNA virus similar to the virus which caused smallpox in humans. Find resources relating to the virus, its spread, symptoms and treatments below.


Image credits:

Chikungunya virion. Cameron Baines
Nicola Stonehouse and Oluwapelumi Adeyemi