Published: 27th March 2020
Scientists develop new tool to help determine if epidemic is natural or man-made
The assessment tool called called GFT (mGFT) contains 11 criteria for determining if an outbreak is of unnatural origin
Researchers have developed a tool that can assist in determining whether the pathogen behind an epidemic is natural or lab-made, an advance that may help better investigate the origins of outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the scientists, including those from the University of New South Wales in Australia, it is usually assumed that every outbreak is natural in origin, and does not routinely include risk assessments for unnatural origins. In the study, published in the journal Risk Analysis, they developed a modified form of an assessment tool called GFT (mGFT) which has been validated against previous outbreaks.
The tool contains 11 criteria for determining if an outbreak is of unnatural origin, the researchers said. It assesses if there is presence of a political or terrorist environment from which a biological attack could originate. The tool also checks if the pathogenic organism may be atypical, rare, antiquated, new emerging, with mutations or different origins, genetically edited or created by synthetic biotechnology.
The tool also checks if the pathogenic organism may be atypical, rare, antiquated, new emerging, with mutations or different origins, genetically edited or created by synthetic biotechnology
Such pathogens, the scientists said, may demonstrate increased virulence, unusual environmental sustainability, resistance to prophylactic and therapeutic measures, or difficulty in detection and identification. The mGFT tool also analyses special aspects of the biological agent to see if it has been genetically manipulated. It also checks for peculiarities of the geographic distribution of disease.
The researchers explained that it is unusual from an epidemiological perspective, if the disease, is identified in a region concerned for the first time ever or again after a long period of time. According to the study, the tool also assesses if the biological agent is released artificially. In such cases, the scientists said the agent may be found in unusually high concentrations in the air, soil, and drinking or surface water over a large area. They said the percentage of cases of a disease per unit of time or the total number of cases may also reflect on the peculiarities of the pathogen.
Generally, the researchers said, natural epidemics feature paths of transmission which are typical for the pathogen and its natural hosts. Deviations from these natural paths, they explained, could indicate that biological agents have been deliberately disseminated. The tool also factors in the timing of the epidemic since certain infectious diseases occur in increased numbers during certain seasons, either because they are dependent on the weather, or they occur after certain intervals in time, the study noted.
An unusual, rapid spread of the epidemic, the scientists said, is determined by its virulence, resistance and concentration of the pathogen, the contagiousness of the disease and the intensity of the transmission process. They added that the susceptibility and disposition of the exposed population are also important factors contributing to a disease's spread.
The tool, according to the researchers, also assesses these factors to determine if a pathogen is lab-made or natural. The study warned that biological attacks can be directed against large heterogeneous population groups and military contingents or against selected target groups -- factors that the tool assesses to help determine the pathogen's origin.
According to the scientists, mGFT can also use data on any suspicious circumstances identified prior to the outbreak, during the period of outbreak or post-outbreak, to point out if it was an unnatural epidemic. If the tool reveals a score of less than 30 points, out of 60 possible points, they said, the outbreak could be of natural cause.
The study noted that each criterion is given a value between 0-3, based on available data. This value, the researchers said, is then multiplied by a set weighting factor between 1-3 points, and the sum of points is divided by the maximum number of points, for a probability which indicate the likelihood of bioterrorism. They said it can be applied to the coronavirus outbreak to flag unusual patterns. Howerver, the researchers cautioned that the findings simply flag unusual patterns in an outbreak, but do not prove unnatural origin.
"Proof of bioattacks can only be obtained by law enforcement and intelligence agencies," they wrote in the study.