Going vegan, banning the trade in exotic animals, and limiting pressure on farms could prevent the world from being ravaged by another pandemic, leading scientists today warned.
A 25-person team of wildlife and veterinarian experts has identified seven pathways for future pandemics – and 161 ways to reduce the risk of another infectious disease hitting every corner of the planet.
The team – led by experts from Cambridge University – said that people need to drastically change the way they interact with animals or it will be “just a matter of time” before a new pandemic turns the world upside down.
The group says wildlife farming, transportation, trade and consumption of meat, the exotic pet industry, and the increasing human encroachment on wildlife habitats are among the ways new diseases can spread in humans.
They propose to limit the number of animals people can keep, keep livestock away from pets, and even go vegan to reduce the risk.
Eating a more plant-based diet would reduce global demand for animal meat and lead to fewer animals being farmed and transported in tight conditions, where diseases can easily jump between species, the researchers claim.
Lead researcher Professor William Sutherland, a zoologist at Cambridge University, said: ‘Many recent campaigns have focused on banning wildlife trade, and dealing with wildlife is very important, but it is only one of the many possible routes of infection.
“We cannot assume that the next pandemic will develop in the same way as Covid-19; we must act more widely to reduce the risk. ‘
Covid-19 is thought to come from bats, which are known carriers of hundreds of different types of coronaviruses.
But it is unlikely that bats gave the virus directly to humans, based on what is known about the transmission of previous coronaviruses.
Scientists believe the disease has been passed on to another animal, an ‘intermediate host’, who has subsequently infected humans.
Pangolins and snakes have been earmarked as the potential intermediate hosts because they lack vital virus-sensitive genes, meaning they can carry diseases without being adversely affected.
The prevailing theory is that this process took place at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where exotic animals could be slaughtered to order.
Live and dead animals were kept in cramped cages in the maligned market, which experts say was the perfect breeding ground for diseases.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE 161 WAYS TO PREVENT ANOTHER PANDEMIA?
Laws to prevent the mixing of different wild animals or the mixing of wild and domestic animals during transport and in markets;
Reduce contact between wild and farmed or domesticated animals (eg by separating pastures or watering, or fencing to increase the biosafety of farm animals)
Increase switching to plant foods to reduce consumption and demand for animal products;
Safety protocols for speleology in areas of high bat density, such as the use of waterproof coveralls and masks;
Improve animal health on farms by limiting stocking density and ensuring high veterinary care standards.
The latest study supported calls to ban wet markets, otherwise known as bushmeat markets, but warned that moving house alone wouldn’t be enough.
The authors considered all major ways in which diseases with a high potential for human-to-human transmission can jump from animal to human, known as zoonotic diseases.
They say that dealing with such a complicated mix of possible sources of infection requires widespread changes in the way humans and animals interact.
Zoonoses can also be transmitted by farm animals and domestic animals, as was seen during the swine flu outbreak, which began in swine, and bird flu.
Some ways to reduce the risk of a new pandemic are relatively straightforward, the researchers explained.
These include encouraging small farmers to keep chickens or ducks away from people.
Others, such as improving biosafety and introducing adequate veterinary and hygiene standards for farm animals around the world, would require significant global financial investment.
The solutions focused on measures that can be implemented in society at local, regional and international level.
The study did not consider the development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary options.
It does not offer recommendations, but a range of options to help policy makers and practitioners to think carefully about possible actions.
The report, which is available online, is currently being peer-reviewed.
The findings were generated by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide variety of sources to identify a range of options for a particular problem.
Scientists believe that the coronavirus currently paralyzing the world started at the Huanan Seafood Wholesales Market in Wuhan (photo)
Skinned chicks on the market, where live animals were kept in tight cages and could be slaughtered to order
Horseshoe bats are known carriers of the viruses, and scientists believe they may be the culprit for the recent outbreak
Sources included the scientific literature, position papers of non-governmental organizations, industry guidelines, experts in various fields and the expertise of the research team itself.
Dr. Silviu Petrovan, Cambridge University veterinarian and wildlife expert and co-lead author of the study, said: “We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can significantly reduce the risk.
Most zoonotic pathogens are not able to transmit from human to human, but some can cause major epidemics.
“Preventing transmission to people is a major challenge for society and also a priority for the protection of public health.”
Professor Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the paper, added, “Wild animals aren’t the problem – they don’t cause disease. People do. Human behavior is at the root of the problem, so changing it provides the solution. ‘