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China's coronavirus outbreak proves we must pay closer attention to animal health

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas
One of the best ways to protect people from diseases like coronavirus is to first protect the health of animals - Corbis Historical

The rapid, global response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, has been impressive and vital. By sequencing the virus within weeks, scientists have accelerated the process of developing a treatment and even a vaccine.

But recent novel cases of human coronavirus are just the latest reminder that we are too often missing the opportunity to act before new diseases emerge in people.

Coronaviruses, like the ongoing outbreak or SARS, are zoonotic, meaning they can pass between animals and people. The source of this outbreak has yet to be confirmed but it could be any number of animal carriers from snakes to pigs.

It may seem counter-intuitive, then, but with six out of 10 infectious diseases being zoonotic, one of the best ways to protect people from diseases like coronavirus is to first protect the health of animals.

Stopping disease in humans by preventing disease in animals underpins the concept of “One Health”, an approach to public health that recognises the links between animals, people and planet.

To bring this to bear and prevent similar outbreaks in the future, we need greater commitment, funding and research on these shared health threats.

One opportunity to do this is to improve One Health monitoring and surveillance. This means tracking the spread of disease in animals, and monitoring human to animal interactions.

There is evidence that such an approach can help spot links in the transmission of Rift Valley Fever between animals and people that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

By identifying disease threats and spread as early as possible, health authorities can take pre-emptive action, such as tighter biosecurity controls on farms or at food markets, or public awareness campaigns.

Another way to foster a One Health approach is to support collaboration between doctors of human medicine, veterinarians, environmentalists and researchers.

Governments can help channel this by investing in joint initiatives such as the UK’s One Health Poultry Hub and the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research, which encourages experts in different disciplines to share research.

Such “One Health” cooperation has found that research into a vaccine for cattle against East Coast Fever could also have useful applications for fighting malaria in people.

Finally, a third way to achieve “One Health” goals is to recognise the role of animal health in food safety.

We have successfully reduced the number of salmonella cases in the UK  from 1.6  per 1,000 in the early 1990s to 0.2 per 1,000 by 2008 thanks to poultry vaccines.

By developing and using new and better treatments for animal disease, we can help stop their spread both among animal populations and among people.

There is still much to understand about the ongoing outbreak of coronavirus. But there are early lessons we can take from another case of zoonotic disease jumping the species barrier.

We can and must do better at protecting animals from disease, and in doing so, protect more people.

  • Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is executive director for Health for Animals

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