Governments and individuals are taking unprecedented, often very austere actions to control the ongoing spread of the pandemic coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). However, they are neglecting an extremely important question that could cause the loss of millions of more lives — how do we prevent the next zoonotic respiratory virus pandemic?
We have not yet identified the source of this virus. What if a new version emerges from the original animal source to cause a second wave of this pandemic?
There are three things we need to do next to help prevent another SARS pandemic.
• Fully investigate the animal origins of the COVID-19 outbreak.
About three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in recent decades have come from animals. SARS-CoV-2 is the third recent zoonotic coronavirus to cause an epidemic of severe human disease.
In 2003, scientists now believe that a new coronavirus jumped from bats into another mammal, the palm civet, which then infected humans in the live-animal markets of Guangdong, China, causing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The SARS-CoV outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774.
In 2012, another novel coronavirus (MERS-CoV) appeared in Saudi Arabia, apparently jumping from bats to camels and then to people, causing Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome
How SARS-CoV-2 made the leap from animals to people is still unknown. Many of the first human cases were associated with markets in Wuhan, China, where seafood, meat and live animals were sold. While we know environmental samples from the market have tested positive for the virus, the exact connection between the market and the first cases remains unclear. No study has been published of the markets, and the workers and animals in the markets.
Without such evidence and thus, knowledge, how are we going to take steps to keep the next virus from jumping from animals to humans?
• Regulate and limit the sale and farming of wildlife species for food.
In the SARS and MERS outbreaks, there was evidence of connections between the outbreaks and changes in the way wild animals were being domesticated and farmed for food.
SARS-CoV emerged in palm civets, a catlike animal that had begun to be farmed for food production in unprecedented numbers.
Similarly, the MERS-CoV emerged in a region where camels were being raised in close quarters on large breeding farms because of the growing demand for racing camels.
These events teach us that if we raise wildlife and other species together in large numbers on farms and sell them in markets in large quantities, we create opportunities for new viruses to proliferate and sicken both people and animals.
The intensification of food production to meet our growing global demand has led to increasing deforestation to provide land for grazing and feed production. This encroaches on and destroys wildlife habitat and reduces wildlife populations and biodiversity.
Preserving natural barriers between wildlife reservoirs of disease pathogens and fostering ecosystem health and biodiversity through restrictions and regulations on trade in wildlife for food could be essential steps in stopping the next epidemic.
• Take a One Health approach to food systems feeding the world.
The first patients to develop SARS were workers handling animals and animal products in live-animal markets and butcheries. Those at highest risk for MERS were workers in close contact with camels.
Animal workers represent the front line for infections passing between animals and humans. Yet compared to workers in factories or hospitals, the health and well-being of animal workers is neglected, and such workers generally are not part of any organized occupational-health programs.
Paying more attention to the health of these workers could improve our ability to detect unusual illnesses before they lead to wider outbreaks.
Why haven’t we learned these lessons already?
Our approach to food systems is siloed. Professionals in agriculture, animal health, human health and the environment have long worked in parallel on issues related to food-production systems.
A new approach, called “One Health,” is a better way forward.
One Health considers the health linkages among humans, animals and their shared environments. The World Health Organization, the United Nations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other entities have endorsed the One Health concept. We need to incorporate this interdisciplinary approach to feed the world’s human population and promote the health of all species without destroying the environment. This means teamwork among human health, animal health and environmental health scientists and others to devise sustainable solutions to our food-production needs.
Even as we mount a full emergency response to COVID-19, we must also start to integrate the One Health approach at all levels and create a healthy coexistence between humans and animals in sustainable ecosystems, safe from new epidemics.