26th May 2020

It has been estimated that as many as 70% of emerging diseases come from our contact with animals. As such, plans to prepare for future pandemics must surely focus on shifting to a less exploitative relationship with nature and the environment...

Factory farm

“Despite the cries of many experts that overpopulation, deforestation, climate change, air travel and intensive farming techniques have increased opportunities for the rapid spread of new and dangerous pathogens, there was a feeling that world pandemics were a thing of the past…

Of course, we now know that nothing could be further from the truth. In the last 30 years alone, we have seen several ‘near-misses’ (including two other Corona virus outbreaks): Hendra (1994), Nipah (1998), SARS (2002), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014). The trait shared by all of these major human epidemics? They were caused by viruses that originated in animals and crossed over into humans.

The world’s leading biodiversity experts warn that the continual ingression of land and ocean, as well as mining and deforestation, does much more than just destroy endangered species. Meanwhile, so-called wet markets, which are a major source of wild and domesticated animal meat in Africa and Asia, make it far more likely that humans and domesticated animals will come into contact with wild animal bacteria and viruses – such as bats, which seem to have been the source of COVID-19. Some estimate there are more than one million such wild viruses, so far undescribed, that offer huge potential for other pandemic strains to emerge.

At the same time, factory farms risk producing even more dangerous pandemic strains. Of 16 novel influenza viruses identified by the US CDC as being “of special concern,” 11 came from viruses of the H5 or H7 type, with the vast majority of the 39 antigenic shifts reported in chicken factory farms.

Unless we radically – and urgently – reimagine our relationship with both wild and domesticated animals, COVID-19 may be only the beginning, with far more serious pandemics likely. As the authors of the 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concluded:

 “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill over of diseases.”

While the cost of change may be measured in billions of dollars, current estimates of the cost of COVID-19 are in the trillions. And while recovery plans may not prioritise environmental concerns in the short term, it is critical that a “one health” approach for humans, animals and the environment is written into long-term plans for a healthier and more sustainable planet.”

Dr Ian M Gould BSc, MBChB, FRCPE, FRCPath, PhD, DSc, Honorary Professor, University of Aberdeen

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