With the spread of COVID-19, classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the global health community has put most, if not all, of its attention on stopping the spread of this virus and treating the thousands already infected. Given our globalized world’s experience with Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and other such outbreaks, it becomes incredibly important to examine how well the lessons learnt are being applied today, as well as to think critically about different countries’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.
With a high incidence rate, and the number of cases surpassing 1 million worldwide, it is clear that China and the global community were not prepared for the realities of another outbreak . The SARS outbreak and the Ebola crisis brought about panic and detrimental effects to the world’s economy, yet instead of informing us on how to more appropriately respond and prepare for outbreaks in the future, it became a part of our history .
This becomes particularly evident when we consider the relationship that other species have played in the spread of these globally threatening diseases. While some of the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa was associated with bushmeat and H5N1 was associated with both wild and domestic birds, very little global effort has gone into examining the dangers of cross-species spread of disease, and how mosquito-borne illnesses in particular are often vectors for this spread .
Zoonoses refer to diseases spread to humans by other animals, and with recent studies showing that COVID-19 could have originated with bats, the threat of zoonotic diseases becomes very real . In 2007, public health officials from around the world gathered at the International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, where they concluded that the “One Health” approach was necessary to appropriately respond to the threat of pandemics . One Health’s basic principles stem from the idea that the health of humans is deeply interwoven and connected to that of other species of animals. This principle particularly calls for greater coordination between animal and human health systems in order to appropriately tackle issues of human security . The One Health Initiative Task Force has found that in the past decade, higher income countries have made efforts to make One Health-aligned discoveries, especially in the veterinary field . While this points towards progress, the same task force found that initiatives were inconsistent, and often non-existent in developing countries where the threat of zoonotic diseases is the highest.
While it is difficult to say with certainty whether or not this approach could have prevented the spread of COVID-19, it is still apparent that this concept was not given the attention it merited. With the threats of climate change only growing, the interactions between human health and our environment needs to be examined further. Global warming has shown to have an impact on animal migration patterns, potentially exposing us to a wider range of diseases . We have also seen a greater prevalence of both humans and livestock imposing on what was traditionally wildlife habitats, presenting a greater need for understanding the direct effects these newly human habitats can have on entire populations . The dangers of these new migration and habitation patterns, coupled with an expanding market for animal products, point to the need to reassess our current relationship with other species in order to better adapt to the world we are living in.
As mentioned previously, this outbreak of COVID-19 was found to be of zoonotic origin, with bats as the main reservoir for this virus, and other evidence pointing towards pangolins . Early investigations on this zoonotic relationship took place in China where environmental samples were taken from the Hunan Wholesale Seafood Market as well as other markets in the region to better understand the type of wildlife species sold and where these were taken after the markets were closed . These measures to address the interconnectedness of animal markets in the spread of disease have provided great insight into how to address this dimension of the spread of COVID-19.
Most importantly, it points to a rather dire future for the wildlife trade industry worldwide. With the 2003 SARS outbreak directly relating to the international market for wildlife trade, the spread of this coronavirus only raises the question of how these markets’ clear impacts on public health were not addressed sooner . The reality is that both scientists and conservationists have been calling for a ban on wildlife trade markets for decades, given their minimal regulations and potentially hazardous effects on human health . Nevertheless, the Chinese government has only placed a temporary ban on these sales until the epidemic is contained, but the scientific community calls for much greater action, and not only in China .
Even with these markets posing clear threats to public health and human security, it is important to emphasize that the issue does not lie in the hands of traditional diets or even cultures that rely on wildlife to sustain their lifestyles. Instead, our focus should be on better understanding the role humans play in the natural world and acknowledging the unknowns that come with our populations further encroaching on new environments, as originally proposed by the One Health initiative .
This is just one area that points towards a global unpreparedness when it comes to responding to disease. There is still hope in learning from this COVID-19 outbreak, but to do so, global leaders and public health officials must strive to better understand the world we are living in, with the known and unknown threats of disease that will only continue to emerge as we continue to develop and interact with our environment further.
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