To prevent another pandemic, we need to improve our relationship with animals

June 8, 2020 Article BioVox

The new coronavirus did not come as a bolt from the blue. For many years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning about “Disease X”. WHO scientists theorized that a novel pathogen, a virus originating in animals, would move into the human population and cause a pandemic. Why? Because there is something deeply wrong with our relationship with animals.

This article was guest authored by Chris Simoens from the Belgian Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs.

Meat markets full of wild animals 

About two thirds of all new infectious diseases over the last 60 years appear to have come from animals. These zoonoses – pathogens that have jumped from an animal to a human – include the Ebola, HIV, MERS, SARS and the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. But why do these viruses make the leap to humans?

The wildlife market in Wuhan – a place selling live animals, including pangolins, porcupines, civet cats, bats, etc. – definitely played a role in the early days of the current coronavirus outbreak. Although the coronavirus may not have originated in the wet market, as originally suspected, there are other viruses that have arisen in similar locations.

One of the reasons so many zoonoses can be traced back to these markets is the proximity of humans and living animals, allowing for the transfer of pathogens.

Markets selling live animals, like the one in Wuhan, are popular in several Asian countries. The reason these markets exist in the first place vary, but in many places, buying a animal while it’s still alive is the only guarantee of your meat being fresh. One of the reasons so many zoonoses can be traced back to these markets is the proximity of humans and living animals, allowing for the transfer of pathogens.

Additionally, in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, millions of people depend on wild animals for their source of protein. This bushmeat used to only be sold in local communities, but has come to be considered a delicacy among wealthier city dwellers. Illegal bushmeat is therefore often transported over long distances and brought into metropolitan areas around the world. Once there, any resulting zoonotic diseases can easily sapread through the dense city population.

Humans and the wild: forced together by our own actions

It has become clear that deforestation also plays an important role in the transfer of diseases from wildlife to humans. By felling forests, wild animals are chased from their habitat or forced to group together in smaller areas. This brings them in closer contact with each other and consequently increases the risk of pathogens being transmitted.

Tropical diseases such as zika, dengue and chikungunya are becoming more common throughout Europe, due to rising temperatures.

Deforestation is also creating a more fragmented landscape in many of the world’s regions. When an area is heavily logged or burned for agriculture, all that remains are often islands of forest in a sea of farmland. Coupled with logging roads delving deep into the heart of virgin forests, the combined effect of this altered landscape is that people are more likely to come into contact with wild animals. Bats and rodents in particular can move relatively easily from deforested areas to areas with human habitation, carrying with them diseases which our immune systems have never encountered.

Climate change also has an impact, particularly in diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other insects. Tropical diseases such as zika, dengue and chikungunya are becoming more common throughout Europe, due to rising temperatures.

Read this previous BioVox article for more on deadly mosquitos invading Europe.

Packed in like sardines

Zoonoses don’t always originate in wild animals: there are many examples of diseases originating in domesticated animals, including bird flu and swine flu. Intensive livestock farming, practiced all around the world, is a veritable breeding ground for new diseases. When huge numbers of animals are grouped together, a pathogen has plenty of opportunities to jump from one animal to the other, adapting as it goes.

This pandemic has made it acutely clear that we need a better approach to our relationship with animals.

Once a disease has made the transition from animal to human host, our modern, mobile society ensures its rapid spread. With record high levels of international trade and individual travel, a new pathogen can quickly grow to pandemic proportions.

Moreover, of the 7.8 billion people alive in the world today, over half reside in increasingly crowded urban areas. Megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants are on the rise, offering perfect conditions for a virus to spread through the dense population.

Rebalancing our relationship with animals

This pandemic has made it acutely clear that we need a better approach to our relationship with animals. It is essential that we restrict wildlife markets and trade. Changing policies will help, but we also need to decrease people’s reliance on bushmeat for sustenance. This can be done by increasing agricultural productivity and providing alternative incomes in many of the world’s poorer regions.

Wild animals must be given more space, to minimize interaction with humans. Buffer zones between natural habitats and areas with human habitation can reduce the risk of contact between people and animals. Furthermore, by making supply chains of agricultural products more sustainable, such as for soy and palm oil, and by consuming less meat, fewer forests will be cleared for land.

Read this previous BioVox article on sustainable meat alternatives.

To prevent new pathogens turning into pandemics, we also need to make some changes to our mobile and densely populated cities. Tackling population growth, through the emancipation of young women, is a start. However, we will also need to make further changes to the way we live our lives. Better healthcare for everyone, no matter where they live, is vital in today’s globally interconnected society.

Even if we improve our relationship with animals, new zoonoses are still likely to arise. That is why we need to invest in early detection, quality research and improved healthcare around the world. The costs may be steep, but the price of another pandemic would be far greater.


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