Climate change will drive future pandemics, says PM Science prize recipient

November 03, 2021


The recipient of the 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, announced tonight, has warned climate change and deforestation will drive an increase in the frequency of future pandemics around the world.

Australian virologist and Australian Academy of Science Fellow, Professor Eddie Holmes, says pandemics have increased in frequency in the past few hundred years and it’s an obvious reflection of the way humans live.

“We have bigger populations, we're more connected, we're more urban and denser, we interact more with wildlife species and have deforestation” says Professor Holmes, who is based at the University of Sydney.

“It’s going to happen more and a key driver of this is climate change. As climates change animals will change their distribution; they’ll probably group together more allowing viruses to jump more easily between them. With more humans living closer to wildlife, this opens the gate for potentially deadly viruses to then jump to human hosts.

“If you’re a virus, your life’s goal is to get from one host to another, including different species.”

Professor Holmes made the comments in an interview with the Academy’s Chief Executive, Anna-Maria Arabia, where he discussed the year that was and what’s still to come.

Professor Holmes, who was one of the first people to publicly release the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, says Australia must embed the tools used to quickly identify emerging virus into our national biosecurity system to help mitigate or prevent the next pandemic.

“The obvious lesson we learned from COVID-19 is that we have to be able to detect these pathogens as quickly as possible, as soon as they are emerging in humans, and we now have the techniques to do that,” says Professor Holmes.

“What we also need is an organisation or mechanism that allows a kind of radar system to be put in place globally, with the data shared globally.

“This would allow us to monitor for any unusual disease occurrences in the human population.”

Australian Academy of Science President Professor John Shine congratulated Professor Holmes on the prize.

“Eddie’s research typifies excellence in Australian science and international scientific engagement. He has been tireless, shown deep resolve and bravery in regards to his research since the start of this pandemic, and is therefore a deserved recipient of this prize,” Professor Shine said.

Academy Fellows have featured each year since the prizes’ inception in 2000.

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