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BRIEF July 9, 2020

Q&A: How Preventing Zoonotic Diseases Can Help Curb COVID-19 and Other Infectious Diseases

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Photo credit: DH Saragih, Shutterstock



Q&A with Franck Berthe, Senior Livestock Specialist in the World Bank’s Agriculture and Food Global Practice

  • Over 70% of emerging infectious diseases in humans have their sources in animals.
  • But both disease --and disease prevention – ultimately come from human activity.
  • A “One Health” approach can help better monitor and manage risks.

Over six months have gone by since experts took note of the emergence of a highly infectious disease called COVID-19. Since then, people around the world have learned about the devastating impacts of diseases that can jump from animals to humans (and back). We caught up with Franck Berthe, Senior Livestock Specialist in the World Bank’s Agriculture and Food Global Practice, to answer basic questions about zoonotic diseases, cross-sectoral solutions and what we can learn from the past to better prepare for future pandemics.  

1. How do infectious diseases like COVID-19 tie-in with food systems?

There is a strong linkage between poor management of livestock, unsafe food handling, ecosystem degradation, encroachments on wildlife habitats, and human illness. Pathogens are transmitted from animals to humans in a rapidly changing environment. COVID-19 is a recent example of this transmission mechanism.

Over 70% of emerging infectious diseases have their sources in animals, domestic or wild, but the transmission paths take advantage of human activities such as agriculture, logging, mining and extraction industries that put animals and humans in closer contact than ever before. The rising number of zoonotic diseases reflects a rise in the extent and depth of our encroachment on nature, and the way we produce, trade and consume food plays an important role in this. Simply put, animal health, people’s health and planetary health are interconnected and food systems provide an array of drivers for the emergence of diseases.

2. Is growing meat consumption a factor behind emerging diseases such as COVID-19 and the new H1N1 flu hitting workers in the pork industry?

The short answer to this is Yes, but let’s start from the growth in meat consumption. The world produces now more than four times the quantity of meat compared to what it did 50 years ago. This, in part, has been made possible by the industrialization of animal production, and simply put, meat consumption increases as the world is getting richer. However, we observe that this consumption tends to plateau, or even decrease, in high-income countries, while the demand now grows in transitioning economies, driven by population growth, increasing incomes and urbanization. Remember that animal-sourced foods remain critical to human development. But, as much as we respond to this demand, we have a responsibility to learn from experience where and when this industrialization happened.

The paradox is that industrialization of animal production does not reduce disease outbreaks. There is huge gap between what we know about preventing animal diseases -some of which can affect humans- and the actual practices in the sector. In a way, COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of the industrial mode of production. A recent report by FAIRR shows that 44 out of 60 of the world’s largest meat, fish and dairy companies, valued at US$ 224 billion, are considered high risk for pandemics and none of them present low risk. We need to address the biosecurity gap and focus our efforts on animal health management and prevention of infectious diseases.

3. The World Bank has a good track record of helping countries address challenging diseases like river blindness and the avian flu. Why is that?

Challenging is the word! In the 1970s, authorities had to combine environmental and public health interventions to successfully reduce the burden of river blindness in Africa. Similarly, tackling the avian flu crisis demanded that different health authorities work in parallel and control the disease in humans and birds. In both cases, the Bank was able to draw on its financing and capacity to work across sectors to support national efforts. The World Bank financed a Global Program for Avian Influenza Control and Human Pandemic Preparedness and Response between 2006 and 2013 that yielded impressive local and global results in terms of public health and economic benefits.  Post-Ebola, we’re also backing a Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement program (REDISSE) that supports surveillance in human and animal populations and epidemic preparedness in West Africa.

Our current $14 billion multi-phase COVID-19 response program includes promising investments in a number of countries. We know from past experience that it’s possible to invest in prevention alongside with control and response – and that the financial returns on this type of investment are excellent. In fact, the returns are so high that investment in prevention is a no brainer.

4. Is the world doing enough to manage zoonotic risks? If not, why not?

I would say No, for several reasons. For starters, large risks tend to be ignored. They are too large to contemplate. We prefer not to deal with large-scale catastrophe and consider them natural disasters rather than the product of human activity that can be managed like other smaller risks. The second reason is that risk management – insurance if you will -- is less exciting than emergency response. We are more motivated to spend money on fixing problems than avoiding them. A third reason may be the lack of strong advocacy in the field of veterinary services and livestock management. This obviously is even more difficult as livestock investments have become a matter of controversy because of animal impacts on climate change, the environment, health and equity. However, we need to change that reluctance to deal with the sector’s strengths and challenges, and stress the importance of animal health for public health.  

The health of people and of animals are interdependent and bound to the health of the ecosystems in which they exist. This connection has been known for centuries, but at the beginning of the 2000s the relationship was conceptualized as “One Health” (or “EcoHealth” and “Planetary Health”). One Health is a powerful approach to manage zoonotic risk and shift from a response mode to a pre-emptive prevention and risk reduction approach through regular country programs and investments.

5. Do you see emerging good practices in this field? What will it take for the world to be better placed when the next bug hits?

Broadly speaking, we would like to see countries invest in the health of their overall food systems to better manage the intersection of environmental, animal and human health. Agriculture and livestock are a big part of the problem behind the emergence of infectious diseases like COVID-19. Investments that make agriculture and livestock safer and more sustainable yield benefits for people and the planet. These investments can take many, locally relevant forms. For example, adopting good animal husbandry practices in pig and chicken farms in Vietnam helps reduce the impact of foodborne zoonoses, and improve food safety. Addressing the quality of veterinary medicinal products in the Sahel region contributes to abate antimicrobial resistance. Better managing effluent waste in dairy farms results in cleaner water in cities like Montevideo, Uruguay. Improving sanitation in traditional markets, or professionalizing food inspections, are also low-cost, high-return actions that can coexist with many forms of food cultures. We clearly see good practices emerging, which we increasingly bring into our portfolio of World Bank lending operations.

In China, for example, a new project, prepared on the heels of COVID-19, will pilot a multi-sectoral approach for reducing the risk of zoonotic and other emerging health threats with a strong One Health focus. It aims to improve risk-based surveillance systems for zoonotic and other emerging health threats, strengthen the capacity for risk assessment and diagnosis and monitoring networks for human, animal and wildlife diseases, and improve protocols for information sharing between relevant agencies. My excitement with this project is really to work at the crossroads of agriculture, environment and public health.