A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic

A new scientific taskforce is headed to the wilderness to try and stop the next pandemic.  

A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic
Training Indonesian animal health workers at the University of Sydney, Sept. 2019. (Photographer: Navneet Dhand/University of Sydney)

(Bloomberg) --

As the coronavirus death toll surpasses 250,000 and the world scrambles to find a vaccine, a new scientific taskforce is headed to the wilderness to try and stop the next pandemic.

After decades of patchy global investment into researching the linkages between animal and human health, more than 40 scientists will embark on an Australian government-funded program that will teach veterinarians in southeast Asia and the Pacific how to detect infectious diseases - before they make the leap into the human population.

A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic

“The majority of infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they are transmittable from animals to humans,” said Navneet Dhand, associate professor of veterinary biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Sydney.

Detecting diseases early in the animal population would help prevent future outbreaks among humans, said Dhand, who helms the effort. To that end, the Australian government has pledged A$4.3 million ($2.8 million) to the three-year project that covers 11 countries across the region. It’s part of an existing A$300 million Indo-Pacific program that pushes for a more proactive approach to fighting pandemics and strengthening health security.

There is broad scientific consensus that the new coronavirus came from animals, although it’s still unknown how and when it made the leap to humans. While researchers are calling for earlier mitigation in the spread of disease as the best defense against future outbreaks, government investment into such strategies hasn’t been nearly consistent enough.

Not enough

Famous for its unique wildlife and A$48 billion agricultural industry that drives much of the economy, Australian scientists say they’re in a position to pass on unique knowledge to less-developed regions.

Dhand’s team will train more than 200 veterinarian and para-veterinarians in Southeast Asia to collect and track data from sick animals, both on nature’s front line and on farms.

A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic

Participants will be taught skills like how to examine a sick animal for more than just the prevailing illness apparent when they’re called to farms or animal sites, as well as check for signs of spread among other animals they’ve been in contact with.

They will also learn how to collect animal samples to build out a database that, over time, can pick up on particular ecological trends and animal behavior patterns. These could show where outbreaks are more likely to occur and how they might spread, thus giving scientists clues on how the disease is transmitted.

In the long run, these efforts can help stop a disease’s spread before it reaches the stage of being able to jump to humans.

Opportunities for animal diseases to transmit to humans have increased with accelerated urbanization and population growth. People now live in closer proximity to, and have more frequent contact with, wildlife, said Dhand.

A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic

There have been at least six large-scale zoonotic disease outbreaks in four decades, including the H1N1 flu, SARS and HIV, collectively resulting in the deaths of millions and impacting the world economy.

But after those outbreaks faded, there’s been relatively little effort to prevent the next one.

“We’ve suffered from a siloed approach, historically, and had a big emphasis on responding to health in emergencies but less of an emphasis on preventing those emergencies,” Mark Schipp, president of the World Organization for Animal Health said. “Diseases in animals spill over into humans on a regular occurrence.”

True Economic Impact

Zoonotic pathogens that infect humans are only part of the threat. Even if the disease never transfers to a human host, outbreaks of sickness among animal populations impacts food security and international trade.

The 2018 African swine disease outbreak decimated pork supplies, affecting the diets of millions in China, where it is the major source of protein. It also dealt a major economic blow to a myriad of agricultural sectors, including pig farmers.

A Vet Detective Squad Is Preparing for the Next Pandemic

“The impact of not controlling non-zoonotic vaccine-preventable disease in animals is much larger than the zoonotic impact, if it’s properly calculated,” said Robyn Alders, senior technical advisor with the Centre for Global Health Security at Chatham House. But data relating to food security “isn’t there to show the true impact on the economy.”

As the coronavirus pandemic starts to come under control in many countries through social-distancing measures, there’s a chance that public attention may turn elsewhere and governments once again neglect investment in preventive strategies.

“The problem here with animal health is that when that perceived human threat is controlled or significantly reduced, the money dries up,” said Alders.

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