Every Fall, it seems, the American public is bombarded with horror stories touting the dangers presented by some newly discovered virus. Bird flu, MERS, SARS, swine flu, the list goes on and on. At some point in the past, the odds are good you've been told to fear at least one of these diseases. Don't expect this particular story prompt to go away anytime soon, because scientists working with the American Society for Microbiology have revealed today that there could be as many as 320,000 viruses that have yet to be discovered.
That sounds like a lot, to be sure, but it's also important to keep in mind that the scientists conducting the study used only one representative species - the Indian flying fox - and used a good bit of estimation to make their educated guess. In studying the 2,000 members of the species, they ran across 55 viruses, 50 of which were completely new to medical science. From here, the virologists extrapolated the results to include all 5,500 known mammals.
So, take heart, hypochondriacs, because it's remotely possible that these estimates could be overblown. I wouldn't count on it, though.
The scientists in charge of the study believe this information could be the first step in identifying and stopping the next great pandemic. They have estimated that locating and cataloguing these potential viruses could cost as much as $6 billion.
Before you balk at the price tag, though, consider that the cost of dealing with a virus after it makes the leap into humans can be more than seven times that amount. Some estimates of the cost of dealing with SARS, for example, put the total around $45 billion.
This information may not be incredibly welcome news (and why should it?), but isn't there some solace knowing that the natural world can still hold surprises this numerous? Even if most of them are out to kill you.