A virus, a bat, other unknown hosts, mutations, the chance transmission to a vulnerable human population.

A lot of factors went into the making of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of them predictable, others impossible to predict. “It’s hard to know what’s going to be the next pandemic,” said Kristen Bernard, a UW virologist who studies animal-borne viruses, like the one that turned the world on its head this year. Bernard spoke with Kelly Tyrrell, an award-winning science writer and director of UW-Madison’s research communications, in a one-on-one session for the Cap Times Ideafest on preparing for the next pandemic.

It turns out, from a science perspective anyway, that researchers are always preparing, surveilling animals across the globe for viruses that carry a genetic make-up that pose a potential threat to humans. Bernard pointed to the extensive surveillance of viruses in birds, insects and mammals by UW scientists like Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Tony Goldberg. “We’re just sort of surveilling the wildlife populations for different viruses,” she said. “And just even knowing a lot about those viruses is helpful because if they did become pandemic, we already have a base research knowledge about it.”

Past pandemics also provide a lot of ammunition in dealing with the current one, she said. The SARS and MERS coronaviruses, two viruses that prompted a worldwide response, sparked swell of research into coronaviruses.

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