Emerging Pathogens

There is a great deal of interest and concern in the rate at which new pathogens are emerging in human and animal populations, presenting risks of significant disease burdens and threats to public health. Well-known examples include HIV/AIDS, SARS, avian and swine influenza, and SARS-CoV-2 which has caused the ongoing pandemic. We continuously survey the literature to maintain a record of all recognised human pathogens and their epidemiological, ecological and genetic traits, with a particular focus on RNA viruses.

Our overall objective is to unravel the biological principles that underlie the phenomenon of "emergence", with a view to identifying likely associated trait profiles and predicting high-risk candidate pathogens for future emergence. This approach has potential practical value in informing the design of efficient surveillance programmes for the early detection of novel pathogens, which is crucial for successful intervention.

Our key research questions address how both a pathogen’s natural history (for example, its transmission route or host range) and molecular characteristics (for example, its cell receptor or specific genetic markers) contribute to the risk of zoonotic transmission, propagation, and adaptation within humans. We investigate these relationships between pathogen traits and dynamics of emergence by applying a wide range of statistical models, machine learning processes, and phylogenetic methods.

In addition to a series of scientific publications our work on this topic has contributed to two major reports: the UK government's 2006 'Foresight' report on the detection and identification of infectious diseases and the US National Academy of Sciences' 2009 report on Sustainable Global Surveillance for Emerging Zoonoses.


Zhang F, Chase-Topping M, Guo C-G, van Bunnik BAD, Brierley L, Woolhouse MEJ. Global discovery of human-infective RNA viruses: A modelling analysis. PLoS Pathog. 2020,16(11): e1009079. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1009079.

Liam Brierley, Amy B. Pedersen, Mark E. J. Woolhouse. Tissue tropism and transmission ecology predict virulence of human RNA viruses. PLoS Biol. November 26, 2019. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000206

Woolhouse MEJ, Brierley L. Epidemiological characteristics of human-infective RNA viruses. Sci Data. 2018 Feb 20;5:180017. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2018.17. PubMedPMID: 29461515; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5819479.

Woolhouse, M.E.J, Brierley, L., McCaffery, C., and Lycett, S.J. (2016) Assessing the epidemic potential of RNA and DNA viruses. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 22: 2037-2044.

Woolhouse, M.E.J., Rambaut, A. and Kellam, P. (2015). Lessons from Ebola: improving infectious disease surveillance to inform outbreak management. Science Translational Medicine 7: 307v5.

Woolhouse, M.E.J., Adair, K. and Brierley, L. (2013). RNA viruses: a case study of the biology of emerging infectious diseases. Microbiology Spectrum 1: OH-0001-2012.

Morse, S.S., Mazet, J.A.K., Woolhouse, M., Parrish, C.R., Carroll, D., Karesh, W.B., Zambrana-Torrelio, C., Lipkin, W.I. and Daszak, P. (2012). Prediction and prevention of the next pandemic zoonosis. The Lancet 380: 1956-1965.

Woolhouse, M.E.J., Scott, F.A., Hudson, Z., Howey, R. and Chase-Topping, M. (2012). Human viruses: discovery and emergence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences 367: 2864-2871.