International bodies such as the WHO, the World Bank, and G20 are calling for increased surveillance after viruses “spill over” from other species to humans to generate so-called “zoonotic” diseases. But often that may be like bolting the door to the stable after the horse has bolted. With a virus as transmissible as SARS-Cov-2, even stringent control measures will not prevent rapid spread.
The authors of the new study claim is more effective and cheaper to try to prevent the zoonotic diseases emerging in the first place. They suggest a three-pronged approach.
Existing viruses that have the potential to become zoonotic (spill over from other species to humans) should be identified as part of a “global virus discovery project”. This data must be freely available internationally, to enable identification of unusual diseases occurring in wildlife and domestic animal populations, to help in targeting areas which need intervention, and to make the production of effective vaccines and tests easier and quicker in the event that they are needed. The project would also increase our general knowledge of these viruses, the effects that they have, and how they might be transmitted.
The health of wildlife, as well as livestock and humans, must be closely monitored.
Existing international bodies such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) have some of the skills and experience for this, but currently do not have the funding to do it effectively. A better awareness of the health status of wildlife being traded would help give early warnings if unusual patterns of illness occurred. It would highlight problems and potential risks for transmission, and could reduce the risk of widespread infection by driving up welfare standards.
And deforestation should be halted. It plays a big role in allowing zoonotic diseases to emerge, by clearing land and moving humans and livestock into areas where they come into contact with pathogens that have not previously encountered.
The authors tabulate the known zoonotic diseases that have had large impacts on humans since the flu pandemic in 1918. Such diseases are emerging more frequently over time. A likely explanation is the increasing rate at which humans in large numbers are driving into uninhabited areas such as forests, along with increasing transport links and global travel.
The authors conclude that if such prevention strategies only reduced the mortality rate by just one per cent, they would still be cost-effective even in narrow economic terms, and predicts the cost of prevention to be about one-twentieth of those of predictable pandemics.
The strategies the authors propose are similar to the ideas put forward by “One Health”, which came out of a conference in 2004 held in response to the zoonotic flu viruses that had been identified in a number of countries at the beginning of the 21st century.
The health of whole ecosystems, and of the plants and wildlife within them, is indivisible. Mental health is included here, as stressed humans and animals have impaired immune systems which increases the risk of the spread of infections).
The strategy to address these issues is very broad. It extends to the housing, diet, and emotional well-being of all people, as well as the environmental welfare of the forests we live near.
Making “one health” an effective global strategy would require a huge shift in the way business, farming, and governments operate, and run up against many capitalist norms.
The major companies who turn a good profit from industrial farming, mining, logging, and other activities generating deforestation, will not subordinate those profits to welfare concerns unless they are forced to do so. And in some of the countries that carry out most deforestation (such as Brazil) governments have recently been unwilling even to nudge them.
So the “one world” model appears unlikely to be achieved under capitalism. But it remains the job of socialists and the working class to push for transitional demands that may help to reduce the risks in the near future. International standards on welfare of animals could be implemented through international agreements.
Campaigns targeting companies which profit from plundering these forests can have effect.
China has made some changes to how its wildlife trade is conducted since Covid 19 emerged, but globally the risks of another pandemic remain high. Indeed, the next pandemic may be worse. The ruling classes and their profiteering businesses are pushing that way.