A healthy planet and healthy animals go hand in hand to protect humans from pandemics, says a new United Nations report.

The report warns that diseases such as COVID-19 that can jump from animals to humans are more likely to emerge as animals’ habitats are destroyed by wildlife exploitation, poor farming practices, and climate change.

That’s important to note since 60 percent of human diseases originate in animals, domestic or wild, according to OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health. Also important to note is that global demand for animal meat has increased 260 percent in the past half century, said United Nations Environmental Program Executive Director Inger Andersen.

Diseases that can jump from animals to humans are called zoonoses.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” said Andersen. “Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen over the past months, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most. To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment.”

Not surprisingly, food safety is an important part of this.

In his summary of what needs to be done, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said that to prevent future outbreaks, “countries need to conserve wild habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate food markets, invest in technology to identify risks, and curb the illegal trade in wildlife.”

On the food safety side of the ledger, some of the diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans  include E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. These foodborne pathogens often originate in cows, poultry, pigs  and other agricultural animals. Caused primarily by bacteria, these animal-originated pathogens, among others, can sicken people and sometimes even kill them. 

On the other side of the ledger are some animal-to-human diseases, primarily caused by viruses. Among them are COVID-19, Ebola, SARS (Severed Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Zika, West Nile Fever, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and Swine Flu.

Although COVID-19’s exact origins have not yet been identified, researchers suspect that it originated in horseshoe bats in China and from there may have jumped to humans by way of an intermediary wild species.


A prime suspect is the pangolin, a sort of a cross between an anteater and an armadillo. Their scales are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. And although trade in them is illegal, there is, nonetheless, a lot of trade going on. The meat is also considered  a delicacy by many people.

And though until the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many people had never heard of pangolins, Paul Thomson, director of the Conservation Programs at Wildlife Conservation Network, said that they’re the most illegally trafficked wild mammals in the world, more than tigers, more than elephants, more than rhinos, anything.”

Portland State University biology professor, Ken Stedman, aka the “virus hunter,” an expert on viruses and the spread of viruses, said that it is “highly unlikely” that someone would get COVID-19 from eating pangolin meat.

Even so, he also said “it’s a very open question how it got to humans.”

Scientists conjecture that  this “jump” from one species and then from there to humans, might have occurred in crowded wildlife markets, or wet markets, such as those in Wuhan, China, and cities in other southeast Asian countries. These markets are where a lot of different kinds of animals — wild and domestic, alive and dead — are sold and where many people come into close contact with them, making it easier for animals and humans to share viruses.

Wet markets are so named because of the vast quantities of ice used to keep animals and meat cool. As it melts, it becomes water, sometimes mixed with blood, and pools on the floor.

China is concerned enough about this possible origin of COVID-19 that it is closing markets that sell wildlife for human consumption and is urging other countries to follow suit. Some people have made unsubstantiated claims that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan, a claim that China has vehemently denied.

As COVID-19 cases accelerate in a number of countries, the global total has passed 11 million cases, also marking a record daily high case number — 212,326 — reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on July 4.

Especially worrisome, it took only five days for world’s number of COVID-19 cases to go from 10 million to 11 million.

Efforts are under way to develop a vaccine, although some warn that one might not be ready for 12 to 18 months. 

“The suggestion that COVID-19 originated in wildlife highlights the importance of addressing health risks at the human-animal-ecosystem interface, as well as the need for integrated surveillance systems, all while preserving animal welfare and biodiversity,” according to a statement on an OIE website.

Some animal-to-human diseases
SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was identified in 2003. According to the World Health Organization, it is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. It affected people in 26 countries.

Transmission of SARS was primarily from person to person. Putting appropriate infection control practices in place brought the global outbreak to an end.  Experimental vaccines are under development.

Ebola — Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) is a rare and deadly disease in people and nonhuman primates. The viruses that cause EVD are located mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. People can get EVD through direct contact with an infected animal (bat or nonhuman primate) or a sick or dead person infected with Ebola virus. From there, it is transmitted from human to human. 

Viruses don’t take breaks.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general

Good outbreak control relies on applying a group of interventions, among them case management, infection prevention and control practices, surveillance and contact tracing, good laboratory service, safe and dignified burials, and social mobilization, officials say.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an Ebola vaccine for the prevention of EVD but only against the Zaire ebola virus species.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. director general of WHO, said the recent joyful celebration of the end of the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo on June 25 was a “victory of science, marking the rapid roll out of a highly effective vaccine that saved lives and slowed the progress of the disease.” 

“For the first time, the world has a licensed ebola vaccine,” he said.

Even so, he reminded everyone that “viruses do not take breaks. There is still the potential for flareups and rapid response teams must remain place.”

Swine flu — Declared a global pandemic by WHO  on June 11, 2009, “swine flu,” or H1N1, was first detected in Mexico and the United States in March of that year. The CDC estimates swine flu caused 60.8 million illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S. Globally, an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people died from swine flu in the first year of the pandemic. It was considered over by August 2010.

New swine flu — The new swine flu virus, referred to as G4,  emerged recently in pigs and can infect people who work with pigs. University of Washington’s Carl Bergstrom, a biologist, says that while pigs have carried G4/H1N1 since 2016, there was no evidence it is circulating in humans. Therefore, at this point, there’s no immediate threat to the public. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, would agree, saying in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate that the new G4 virus is “not an immediate threat” to public health “in the near term.” 

MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is an illness caused by a virus that is said to have originated with dromedary camels in the Arabian Peninsula. Three or four out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died. MERS can spread from ill people to others through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. MERS patients have ranged in age from younger than 1 to 99 years old.

Both the legal and illegal trade in wildlife also present serious challenges. 

“The diseases that hitchhike into the country on legally imported wildlife continue to go largely unnoticed,” said Jonathan Kolby, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officer and policy specialist focusing on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

He points to the thousands of illegally traded shipments of wildlife that are intercepted each year. In 2019 alone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened more than 10,000 illegal wildlife trade inspections.

“Importing any live animal brings with it the risk of disease — to native wildlife, to livestock, and to people,” he said. “The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China  . . .  has shined a spotlight on how easily zoonotic diseases can emerge from wildlife.”

He pointed out that with few exceptions, the U.S. doesn’t have any laws that specifically require a disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country, which means that the vast majority of wild animal imports are not tested. 

But the U.S. is not alone in this. Kolby said that other countries don’t have a government agency that comprehensively screens wildlife imports for pathogens. That’s important because according to information from OIE’s press release, the majority of recently emerging infections diseases have wildlife origins.

“With Covid-19 aiming a spotlight on long-existing deficiencies, now is the time for the best minds in the Fish and Wildlife Service, CDC, USDA, industry and academia to come together and consider what steps can be taken to sew this hole shut before the next animal-origin pandemic is thrust into our daily lives,” said Kolby.

The search for a solution
The new U.N. report calls for governments to take a “One Health” approach, which would pull together public health, veterinary and environmental experts to fight outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. The report’s authors say this One Health approach is the best way for preventing as well as responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

Among its 10 recommendations are expanding scientific enquiry into zoonotic diseases; strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems; and incentivizing sustainable land management practices and developing alternatives for food security and livelihoods that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity.

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