Professor Holmes, new fellow of the Australian Academy of Science on predicting the next pandemic

26 May 2015

Decades after his high school biology teacher forbade him from reading about evolution Professor Edward Holmes, from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre, is a world-leading expert on viral evolution and has today been named a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science for his significant contributions to this field.

The Academy's honour recognises how Professor Holmes' research "has revealed the fundamental processes of microbial evolution, determined the origin and evolution of major human pathogens including influenza, dengue and the AIDS virus."

"His work has enabled more accurate assessments of what types of viruses, and from which animal species, are most likely to emerge in human populations, and how they will evolve in response to our attempts to control them." To do this Professor Holmes compares the genome sequences of microbes. Most recently he has used the deliberate release of viruses as biological controls against invasive pests to understand basic aspects of pathogen evolution.

The prohibition an anti-evolution high school teacher placed on Eddie Holmes' class learning anything about it had the counter-effect, in Eddie's case, of spurring him to explore the 'taboo' subject. It started a fascination which determined the course of his distinguished career including the previously thwarted student becoming University Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oxford.

Discussing his work, including the attempt to predict the next pandemic Professor Holmes said:

Viruses are a fantastic natural laboratory for studying the history of evolution because they evolve so incredibly quickly. The AIDS virus and the flu virus would have evolved about one million times faster than our own DNA does, which is how they become resistant to our vaccines and drugs so easily. They give us an incredible speeded-up picture of evolutionary change that we can capture in real time.

That insight into their evolution and spread means having more information about their eventual control, including how we design and distribute better vaccines and antivirals.
Every few years now, most recently with Ebola, we seem to be experiencing a major pandemic somewhere in the world. Our research tries to use evolutionary ideas to predict what the next pandemic will be and when and where it will happen. By understanding the rules by which diseases appear and emerge we can try to predict how we might stop their spread.

Whether we'll predict exactly the next pandemic is very unclear - I think of it more like predicting earthquake zones than next week's weather. We can look at fault lines for where things are likely to appear and what they'll be like but …we can't say accurately what it is going to be.

The possible pandemic we should be concerned about most is still influenza. It ticks all the boxes for a pandemic; it can be extremely virulent, moves quickly because it can spread through the air and is extremely infectious. These are all the right things to allow a pathogen to spread globally and cause great devastation.

The vaccines and drugs we have are not as good as we would like them to be, so flu is still the hardy perennial of disease emergence.

While Australia has in place plans for handling a pandemic such as influenza, it still needs a national centre for disease control and prevention. We've had a state-based system that has worked up until now, but it may be more luck than judgment that we haven't yet had a novel disease that has rapidly spread across state boundaries.

Professor Holmes is one of 21 fellows being admitted into the Academy in a formal ceremony today.

He joined the University of Sydney in 2012 as an NHMRC fellow and is affiliated with the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, the School of Biological Sciences and Sydney Medical School.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

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