A digital illustration of a virus.

Scientists from Columbia University estimate that at least 320,000 viral infections in mammals have yet to be discovered.

They believe that gathering samples of these viruses will help them understand what drives and controls viral diversity and the emergence of disease-causing pathogens, providing information critical to the early detection and mitigation of disease outbreaks in humans.

The approximate cost of uncovering these viruses could be around $6.3bn, or $1.4bn, if only 85% of viral infections were discovered, which has a small economic effect when considering a pandemic such as SARS.

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) scientist Dr Simon Anthony said: "Historically, our whole approach to discovery has been altogether too random.

"What we currently know about viruses is very much biased towards those that have already spilled over into humans or animals and emerged as diseases. But the pool of all viruses in wildlife, including many potential threats to humans, is actually much deeper."

EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak added: "For decades, we’ve faced the threat of future pandemics without knowing how many viruses are lurking in the environment, in wildlife, waiting to emerge. Finally we have a breakthrough; there aren’t millions of unknown viruses, just a few hundred thousand, and given the technology we have, it’s possible that in my lifetime, we’ll know the identity of every unknown virus on the planet."

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By GlobalData

Nearly 70% of viruses such as HIV/AIDS, West Nile, Ebola, SARS and influenza, are described as infections from animals that can be transferred into humans.

However, there are still no solid estimates regarding the total number of viral infection that exist in nature.

"There aren’t millions of unknown viruses, just a few hundred thousand. Given the technology we have, it’s possible that in my lifetime, we’ll know the identity of every unknown virus on the planet."

"If we know what’s out there, we’ll be a lot better prepared when a virus jumps over into a human population," Dr Anthony added.

He went on to say that prevention is essential especially when it involves viral infections that make anti-viral vaccines a challenge to produce.

The PREDICT Project is a programme focused on forecating, responding to, and preventing the emergence of infectious diseases in humans in order to identify pathogens at their source.

It will serve as a revolutionary ‘warning system’ that decreases the impact of emerging diseases that can be transferred between animals and people.

UC Davis One Health Institute director and PREDICT co-director Jonna Mazet, co-author, said: "The project has already discovered more than 240 novel viruses throughout the world in areas where people and animals live in close contact and depend on the same natural resources."

She added that this includes new coronaviruses, such as the ones that cause SARS and the new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

Image: A digital illustration of a virus. Photo: courtesy of ddpavumba.