When the dust settles in the summer of 2020, tough questions are going to be asked about where the COVID- 19 pandemic came from and, most crucially, how we can prevent anything like this from happening again? Answering these questions is crucial to inoculate society from future pandemics and will take us straight into the heart of society’s relationship with the natural world. Often decried as a frivolous luxury, secondary to economic growth, one of the things we must learn from COVID-19 is that a healthy, well-managed environment is crucial to controlling disease.
For instance, Ebola, avian influenza, rabies, West Nile, SARS and now COVID-19 all find their origins in situations where humans and animals come into contact. Based on some estimates, around 75% of emerging diseases in humans are of animal origin. History, as well as the present predicament, teach us that whenever we humans take too many liberties with the natural world, we get - in the most literal way possibly imaginable - sick .
The current pandemic is no exception and seems to have emerged in the largely unregulated trade of wild animals in wet markets of China. While we don’t yet know for certain, it is likely that the virus originated in bats (many viruses do, so this isn’t a bad guess) and then hopped into some animal that a human hunter caught and butchered before selling and marketing. At some point, the COVID-19 virus managed to migrate into a human host and somewhere along the way mutated just a little bit so that the new strain was able to be transmitted between humans. And once that happened, our hyper- connected world did the rest.
Of course, the bad news is that there is nothing to say this won’t happen again. In fact, it’s quite likely that as awful as the current predicament is, the next one could be much worse. Imagine if the virus that causes avian influenza mutates in a way that becomes transmissible between humans? Such a nightmarish scenario might see 30% or 40% mortality and mostly affect young people.
One way to protect ourselves against this apocalyptic scene is to invest heavily in the basic science of what is known as “One Health.” One Health is a discipline that finds its roots in a mixture of ecology, veterinary medicine, and the study of human health. The key tenet of One Health is that much like a three-legged stool needs all three legs to be strong, human health, environmental health and animal health are all mutually dependent; you cannot have one without the other two, the world simply doesn’t work that way.
Although One Health may sound novel, the concept is not and has been practiced for decades. In fact, some of our biggest successes in fighting off infectious disease are indebted to the One Health approach. For instance, controlling rabies in humans is not possible without controlling the disease in the environment. That is why there has been a concerted effort by veterinary organizations and governments to vaccinate animals against rabies.
There are current global initiatives to organize efforts and focus on diseases at the human-animal-environment interface across the world. Now more than ever there is an urgent need for governments around the world to invest in these sorts of programs and ensure that a global One Health initiative is developed as a core component of planning preparedness for future pandemics.
We can no longer ignore the fragility of our world and the vulnerability of our systems, including our food, education and healthcare systems. Without a global One Health approach, we are bound to deal with yet another pandemic in a not too distant future that could be far more devastating. We have to know why pandemics happen and predict where and when they happen. We do have pieces of the puzzle but have not been able to put the puzzle together.
The dust will settle on the current predicament, COVID-19 will fade, and we will be given an opportunity to reflect on what we have learned. The test that we all face is the following: Will our behaviours, our governance, our economic practices in the future acknowledge the stark reality of living in a world where pandemics can happen? Or will we blindly go back to the way things were and squander this opportunity to make ourselves safer and more resilient in the long term?