A ray of hope for our pandemic-ridden world

UEF Bulletin 2016

When reading and watching the news, the feeling one gets is that pandemics spreading around the world are beyond anything an individual can do anything about. In the future, however, it may be possible to control the spread of pandemics by anticipating and simulating their spread patterns.

The Department of Environmental Science at the University of Eastern Finland is currently involved in a project, the results of which may play a significant role in preventing the spread of pandemics in the future.

The PANDHUB project, coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, seeks to assist transport hub operators in raising their preparedness against pathogens that can cause pandemics or are otherwise dangerous. A specific goal of the project is to produce reliable and validated data on risk assessments for enhancing pandemic preparedness.

“This international project creates validated preparedness tools for European transport hubs that serve as meeting points for people coming from different places,” says Research Director Pertti Pasanen, of the research group for Indoor Environment and Occupational Health.

“We have already completed our first trial measurements at a European airport. A literature review relating to the spreading of pandemics in transport hubs is also under way,” says Researcher Anniina Salmela.

“We can get to the actual simulation of pandemics after the results have been analysed. At the moment, we are determining the most important and likely places for diseases to spread at an airport. These places are often referred to as hotspots. We will continue with on-site measurements when the influenza season begins, in January-February. These measurements are used to verify the accuracy of our hotspot determination and thus to support an efficient targeting of prevention measures.”

Hotspots are characterised by human interaction and the touching of surfaces that may contain pathogens, such as toilets and check-in machines.

“All modern transport hubs such as railway stations, bus stations, ports and subways have touch screens. In addition to surface samples, we are also collecting air samples,” Salmela explains.

Pathogens that spread easily or by different patterns have been selected for the current analysis. In addition to influenza, the project also focuses on a couple of other dangerous and rarer pathogens.

According to Salmela, the normal bacterial flora of the human skin constitutes a challenge, as this flora is abundant irrespective of the location – be it Helsinki, Nairobi or Hong Kong.

Furthermore, each transport hub has its special characteristics. The researchers hope that they won’t find any pandemic-causing pathogens, at least not in infective doses.

“The infection mechanism of Ebola, for example, is different from that of influenza, requiring contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person,” Salmela says.

Recent years have witnessed such pandemics as bird flu and swine flu, while plagues constitute examples of historical pandemics.

The approach of environmental scientists to microbiology is different from that of medicine.

“I don’t usually think of microbes as pathogens. Our research mainly focuses on how they grow in different conditions and how they spread,” Salmela says.

“It is important to carry out this research now, as people travel a lot these days. In addition to business travel, leisure travel has also increased significantly. For example, Finland is a significant gateway to Asia, and Helsinki Airport is crowded with transit passengers.”

“We analyse samples collected from the airport together with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.  The samples are first cultivated for bacteria, and molecular methods such as PCR and sequencing are used to determine their bacterial and viral strains. Viruses are challenging in that they can’t be analysed by using the traditional cultivation methods.”

“I hope we’ll be able to create a tool that can be used for analysing the spreading of pandemics and their prevention. However, our measurements need to consider a variety of variables such as people density and people movement, as well as the transport hub’s maintenance practices and cleaning cycles.”

“The measurements carried out at the airport are important for validation. In this project, researchers in France and the UK are in charge of pandemic simulation, and that work is ongoing alongside ours,” Salmela says.

Simulating the spread of pandemics makes it possible to create increasingly efficient preparedness plans.

“The international partners in this project are leading research institutes in their fields, which facilitates tool development and makes it easier for end users to exploit them. However, the confidential nature of the results poses some limitations to freely distributing the data,” Pasanen says.

PANDHUB project

  • The PANDHUB project is funded by the EU and was launched in 2014. The project focuses on the prevention and management of high threat pathogen incidents in transport hubs.
  • Coordinated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the project involves such international partners as UNOTT, PHE, MEDES and SAMU.
  • Other partners include transport hub operators and service providers, as well as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC.
  •  Findings will become available already in 2016, and the final results will be ready by the end of 2017.
  • http://pandhub-fp7-security.eu/

Text: Marianne Mustonen Photo: AFP/lehtikuva