The COVID-19 pandemic was, and continues to be, devastating for many – closing businesses, suffering from mental health issues and even experiencing the death of their loved ones. The time between the first detection of the virus to the declaration of a global pandemic was about 2.5 months. On December 31st, 2019, China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases, and by January 13th, the first international case was reported in Thailand. However, despite China detecting cases in December, lockdown in the Wuhan province of China did not occur until the 23rd of January. Thus, with increased communication and contact tracing, could this public health disaster have been avoided? And, in the future, how might we prevent a similar outbreak from occurring? This question has daunted many scientists’ minds, both pre- and post-COVID. The World Health Organization (WHO) determined that 75% of new infections in the past decade have been zoonotic, and COVID-19 is no exception, as it was passed on to humans from contact with an infected animal. Considering this, you might fear that the emergence of novel viruses is inevitable, as there is no way to prevent mutated animal viruses from infecting humans. That may be true, however, there are ways in which we can mitigate the spread of infectious viruses both through the mitigation of animal contact and global public health measures.
Can risk mitigation of consumption of wild animals prevent outbreaks?
When studying the spread of infectious viruses, it is important to note that zoonotic pathogens which infect humans are neither rare, nor only found in distant lands. Common zoonotic diseases which plague our society are rabies, which may have originated in Iraq 1930 BC; West Nile virus originating from Uganda in 1937; the plague which may have originated in Asia in 3000 BC; and, Lyme disease which may have originally come from Europe before the Ice Age but has spread most commonly throughout North America.
Based on their COVID-19 research, Peter Daszak and Kevin Olival at Ecohealth Alliance in New York outlined a strategy to prevent future outbreaks which come from the consumption of wild animals. The first cases of COVID-19 were linked to an outdoor market, with the structure of the virus suggesting it originated in bats. Thus, the first method of preventing future outbreaks is to more closely monitor wildlife for high-risk pathogens. It may not be as simple as banning all consumption of wild animals – pathogens may be transferred through domesticated animals as well, and for some, eating wild animals is long-engrained into the culture. Thus, with closer monitoring of species we may be able to identify potential pathogens before they are transferred to humans.
Surveillance and risk reduction in people at high risk of contact with wildlife may also be necessary. A recent study reported finding a small cohort of people in rural China who tested seropositive for a bat SARS-CoV. This suggests that bat-origin coronaviruses commonly spillover into the region and largely go undetected. Thus, local health authorities may devise monitoring strategies which detect transmission in particularly high-risk regions.
Furthermore, the group suggests an improvement in biosecurity of the wildlife trade and animal markets. This suggestion involves bettering the hygiene and sanitation facilities at wet markets and improved wellness checks for the animals before entering markets.
Can epidemic preparedness avoid pandemics?
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s what not to do in the face of a global pandemic. Michael C. Lu, the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote an article detailing 3 ways in which humans as a species can work together to reduce the risk of a future epidemic.
First, developing an early warning system using AI will be of utmost importance. Much like a system for tsunamis and earthquakes, this system would gather information through a combination of zoonotic reconnaissance, artificial intelligence and outbreak investigations on the ground in order to warn citizens to take rapid measures in order to reduce the spread.
Globally, it is also important that we strengthen local public health systems. Early warnings would be useless without public health enforcement. Countries which quickly quenched the spread of the virus had rapid public health enforcements to track cases, conduct contact tracing, perform rapid testing and provide reliable information to the public. For example, South Korea was quickly able to flatten the curve which in large part, is thought to have been through their superior contact tracing and mask enforcement policies. If each country also had these public measures in place before the virus outbreak, the case number today could have been significantly reduced.
Lastly, we can mitigate the risk of future outbreaks by protecting habitats in which wild animals live. The more contact humans have with wild animals, the higher chance of interactions between species. We can stop wildlife trade, not only by regulating and monitoring, but also by enforcing international law to combat illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. The United States and China are responsible for 60 percent of global imports and exports of all wildlife, respectively; and this trade may either need to be banned completely or more stringently regulated.
Although we as a global community were not able to suppress the spread of COVID-19, this does not mean we cannot learn and adapt to better prepare for future outbreaks. By putting in place the outlined preventative strategies we may be able to successfully prevent future outbreaks caused by infectious zoonotic viruses. As global pandemics are trending towards emerging more frequently, it is a not a question of ‘if’, but rather, ‘when’ the next will occur. As citizens, it is important to demand our local and national governments to work collaboratively to put in place these potentially life-saving public health measures for the next time an outbreak occurs.
1. Daszak, P., Olival, K. J. & Li, H. A strategy to prevent future epidemics similar to the 2019-nCoV outbreak. Biosaf. Health 2, 6–8 (2020).
2. Li, H. et al. Human-animal interactions and bat coronavirus spillover potential among rural residents in Southern China. Biosaf. Health 1, 84–90 (2019).
3. Lu, M. C. Perspective | Future pandemics can be prevented, but that’ll rely on unprecedented global cooperation. Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/future-pandemics-can-be-prevented-but-thatll-rely-on-unprecedented-global-cooperation/2020/04/16/0caca7b8-7e6d-11ea-8013-1b6da0e4a2b7_story.html.
4. Walzer, N. A. R., Christian. How Do We Prevent the Next Outbreak? Scientific American Blog Network https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-do-we-prevent-the-next-outbreak/.