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Key Lessons from China’s Coronavirus Epidemic

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Animal-to-human transmission is major cause of emerging infectious diseases and call for cross-sector collaboration

While Chinese and global public health officials fight the current coronavirus epidemic, it is important to step back and examine the underlying causes of this outbreak. We are likely to see a continuation of infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics in the future and learning from this epidemic may help prevent or mitigate the impact of future epidemics.

We will need to study the current coronavirus epidemic as it unfolds, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

  • Animal-to-human transmission as the main culprit. Early on, many of the patients in the outbreak in Wuhan, China reportedly had some link to a large, wet seafood and animal market that sold wildlife for human consumption, suggesting animal-to-person spread. Similar to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that is related to the coronavirus, there are indications that the fundamental culprit is zoonotic disease, i.e., infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites that spread between animals (usually vertebrates) and humans. Major modern diseases, such as Ebola virus disease and salmonellosis, are zoonoses. According to the Institute of Medicine (2009), zoonotic pathogens caused more than 65% of emerging infectious disease events in the past leading to major economic costs on society. Many forget that HIV and the AIDS-epidemic have an animal origin. More scientific research needs to devote to the understanding of the origins of pathogens and animal reservoirs that serve as vectors for animal and human diseases.
  • Illegal and unsafe food supply. In many developing countries, including parts of Southeast Asia and Africa, parts of the food supply are not subject to regulatory food safety control. Paula Froehlich, a travel editor, wrote a colorful, but authentic story about the meat markets in a number of developing markets, which often serve as reservoirs for the spread of food-borne pathogens and diseases. Furthermore, in many developing countries meat animals are supplied from small family farms that have limited, if any, food safety hazard prevention systems. In addition, many developing countries lack effective food safety surveillance systems. Meat markets and the food supply overall should be subject to better food safety control and certain meat products derived from animals, such as, for example bats, monkeys, hyena and insects, should be banned all together.
  • Population growth and climate change. As the global population continues to grow, often concentrating in urban centers, the risks to human health are rising, in particular in areas where humans and animals live closely together and share eco-systems. Furthermore, there is growing evidence of a link between climate change and infectious diseases. More research should be done to elevate the understanding of the link between climate change and infectious diseases and develop strategies for mitigating this challenge.
  • Investment in the fight against infectious diseases. Challenges in creating and maintaining sustainable commercial operations in infectious diseases have led several pharmaceutical companies to drop the development of antibiotics. Public private partnerships will be needed to continue innovation to respond to future threats of infectious diseases and epidemics.
  • Transparency. Current and recent infectious disease outbreaks have been major challenges for public health officials. In Wuhan, China, the local government was late to acknowledge the severity of the coronavirus. Wuhan’s mayor has also expressed concerns that the centralized nature of China’s political system is partially responsible for lack of transparency and slowing down the response to the epidemic. In the modern era with a 24/7 news cycle and social media proliferation, transparency is critical to combatting disease outbreaks and epidemics.
  • The public mindset. The general public quickly forgets about major disease outbreaks, largely due to the superficial nature of modern media coverage. Just a few years ago, the SARS epidemic created a lot of anxiety and concern, but then it was quickly forgotten. The Ebola-virus was only of interest to the U.S. media when American individuals were infected, despite the fact that Ebola is still rampant in parts of West Africa. There is a need for a more sustained focus on the serious issues around infectious diseases and the risks they represent to the global population.
  • Cross-sector collaboration. A sustained cross-sector collaboration is needed due to the nature of animal to human transmission of infectious disease and the key issues around population growth, climate change, food safety policies, etc. Animal and human scientists, animal health and pharmaceutical companies, public health officials, epidemiologists, environmental and urban planners need to work together to address the challenges from current and emerging diseases. Several years ago, animal and human scientists initiated a discussion about “One Health,” the idea that human and animal health fundamentally is connected. Since then the One Health movement has had less traction. We need to reinvigorate the One Health movement.
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