Health

161 ways to prevent another pandemic: Cambridge University study

Going vegan, banning the trade of exotic animals and clamping down on crowded farms could prevent the world from being ravaged by another pandemic, leading scientists warned today.

A 25-strong team of wildlife and veterinary experts have identified seven routes by which pandemics could occur moving forward — and 161 ways to reduce the risk of another infectious disease striking every corner of the planet. 

The team — led by Cambridge University experts — said humans must drastically change the way they interact with animals or it is ‘only a matter of time’ before another pandemic rocks the world.  

The group say wildlife farming, the transport, trade and consumption of meat, the exotic pet industry and increased human encroachment on wildlife habitats, are among the ways new diseases could spread in humans.

They propose clamping down on the amount of animals people can farm, keeping livestock away from domestic pets and even going vegan to reduce the risk.

Eating a more plant-based diet would bring down the global demand for animal meat and lead to less animals being farmed and transported in cramped conditions, where disease can easily jump between species, the researchers claim. 

Lead researcher Professor William Sutherland, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘A lot of recent campaigns have focused on banning the trade of wild animals, and dealing with wild animal trade is really important yet it’s only one of many potential routes of infection. 

‘We should not assume the next pandemic will arise in the same way as Covid-19; we need to be acting on a wider scale to reduce the risk.’

Covid-19 is thought to have originated in bats, which are known carriers of hundreds of different kinds of coronaviruses. 

But it’s unlikely that bats directly gave the virus to humans, based on what’s known about transmission of earlier coronaviruses. 

Scientists believe the disease was passed on to another animal, an ‘intermediate host’, which then infected humans.

Pangolins and snakes have been earmarked as the potential intermediate hosts because they lack vital virus-sensing genes which means they can carry diseases without suffering any negative consequences. 

The prevailing theory is this process took place at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where exotic animals could be slaughtered on order.

Live and dead animals were kept in cramped cages at the maligned market, which experts say made it the perfect breeding ground for disease. 

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE 161 WAYS TO PREVENT ANOTHER PANDEMIC? 

Laws to prevent the mixing of different wild animals or the mixing of wild and domestic animals during transport and at markets;

Reduce contact between wild and farmed or domestic animals (eg. by separating grazing areas or watering areas, or fencing to increase biosecurity of farmed animals);

Increase switching to plant-based foods to reduce consumption of, and demand for, animal products;

Safety protocols for caving in areas with high bat density, such as use of waterproof coveralls and masks;

Improve animal health on farms by limiting stocking densities and ensuring high standards of veterinary care.

The latest study backed calls to ban wet markets, sometimes known as bushmeat markets, but warned the move on its own would not be enough.

Its authors considered all major ways that diseases with high potential for human to human transmission can jump from animals to humans, known as zoonotic diseases. 

They say that dealing with such a complicated mix of potential sources of infection requires widespread changes to the ways humans and animals interact.

Zoonotic diseases can also transmit from farmed wildlife and domesticated animals, as was seen during the swine flu outbreak, which started in pigs, and bird flu. 

Some of the ways to reduce the risk of another pandemic are relatively simple, the researchers explained.

These include encouraging smallholder farmers to keep chickens or ducks away from people. 

Others, like improving biosecurity and introducing adequate veterinary and hygiene standards for farmed animals across the world, would require significant financial investment on a global scale.

Solutions were focused on measures that can be put in place in society at local, regional and international scales. 

The study did not consider the development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary medicine options. 

It does not offer recommendations, but a set of options to help policy-makers and practitioners think carefully about possible courses of action. 

The report, available online, is currently being peer reviewed.

The findings were generated by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide range of sources to identify a range of options for a given problem. 

Scientists believe the coronavirus currently crippling the world began at the Huanan Seafood Wholesales Market in Wuhan (pictured)

Scientists believe the coronavirus currently crippling the world began at the Huanan Seafood Wholesales Market in Wuhan (pictured)

Skinned chicks at the market, where live animals were kept in cramped caged and could be slaughtered on order

Skinned chicks at the market, where live animals were kept in cramped caged and could be slaughtered on order 

Horseshoe bats are known carriers of the viruses and scientists believe they may be the culprit for the recent outbreak

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 by Non-Governmental Organisations, industry guidelines, experts in different fields, and the expertise of the study team itself. 

Dr Silviu Petrovan, a veterinarian and wildlife expert from the University of Cambridge and co-lead author of the study: ‘We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk. 

‘Most zoonotic pathogens are not capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, but some can cause major epidemics. 

‘Preventing their transfer to humans is a major challenge for society and also a priority for protecting 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 emergence. People do. At the root of the problem is human behaviour, so changing this provides the solution.’

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