“There will be more pandemics, and there is a feeling among some scientists that [Covid-19] could just be a dress rehearsal for the real big pandemic. Many virologists, including me, have been predicting an influenza pandemic for many years.” – Professor Aliza le Roux, Assistant Dean of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and Associate Professor of Zoology and Entomology.
The last few years have been a never-ending cycle of large death tolls and life-changing uncertainty. Evolved virus variants fill our lives around every corner. Not to mention one of the most complex parts about living through a pandemic, all the unknowns. It feels like we can’t wrap our minds around one problem before another fills the news channels.
Just as we feel that there may be some return to “normal,” a new strain throws us back into turmoil. And there is no clear end to this pandemic insight. As of March 2022, China is still shutting down entire provinces and putting all its residents into forced home quarantines to contain new outbreaks.
So, where do pandemics originate? And are we willing to learn from this pandemic and change how we do things to prevent another Covid-19 like outbreak from happening again soon?
THE ORIGINS OF PANDEMICS
Around three-fourths of emerging infectious diseases in human populations are zoonoses. Zoonotic diseases leap to humans from other species. The more contact humans and domestic animals have with potentially infected wildlife, the greater the possibility of a new zoonotic virus emerging becomes. Hunters and slaughterhouse workers repeatedly come into close contact with tissue and fluids from animals likely to be sick or infected.
“There are many other examples of serious human pandemics which was spread from animals to humans. Another good example is the Ebola virus, which has been traced to people eating bats in Africa. Yet another example is HIV, which is believed to have spread to a man as a result of the consumption of chimpanzee meat. The most serious has been the 1918 Spanish flu, which started off in pigs and spread to man. All of these have to do with the mistreatment of animals by man,” stated Professor Robert Bragg, a researcher in the UFS Department of Microbial, Biochemical, and Food Biotechnology
NEW EVIDENCE POINTS TO WUHAN MARKET
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, has long been considered the most likely point of origin for the current Covid-19 pandemic. Two recent research studies offer strong evidence that the virus jumped from a caged wild animal to a human host.
Photographs taken in December 2019 show caged wild animals for sale in the market. Raccoon dogs were pictured in a cage sitting atop a chicken coop. A red fox was curled up alone in its cage. All were in or around stalls with traces of SARS-CoV-2, including carts, pens, and machines that processed animals after slaughter.
The preliminary papers are still awaiting review by outside scientists, but they paint a particularly vivid picture of what may have occurred leading up to the pandemic. While quite a few stalls showed contamination, the data points to one specific booth at the market where the first transfer was likely to have occurred. This stall had five positive samples. These samples were all found on animal-related surfaces such as a feather/hair remover, a cart used to transport cages, and the enclosures themselves.
WILDLIFE VS FACTORY-FARMED ANIMALS
“Our demand for meat is driving cheaper and less controlled agricultural practices, cramming more animals into smaller spaces, feeding them less and less natural fodder,” Professor Aliza le Roux stated. “Remember mad cow disease? Have you seen chicken batteries? We should not blame ‘exotic’ eating practices but look at our own.”
The truth is that China isn’t the only country at risk of creating a pandemic. A new society-crippling pandemic looms right around the corner in any part of the world where animals are raised and slaughtered. The threat of a new pandemic is especially true on factory farms.
Some experts are quick to exonerate factory farms based on standard hygiene practices, claiming that sanitary procedures prevent the spread of disease. Factory farming has introduced several zoonotic viruses such as:
Before pasteurization, thousands of people contracted Bovine Tuberculosis through cow’s milk. Around 65,000 people died in England and Wales between 1912 and 1937. Bovine Tuberculosis is still endemic among cattle the world over. Farmers immediately slaughter cattle found to have the disease
In the 1930s, Q Fever started infecting humans. The Netherlands experienced a significant outbreak in 2007 after rapid growth in the goat dairying industry. An estimated 50,000 people were infected. Farmers killed over 50,000 dairy goats to control the spread. Q Fever is also commonly reported in France and Australia.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) [Mad Cow Disease]
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) began infecting cattle in the 1970s/1980s. The cattle contracted it from animal feed containing meat and bone meal from cows, some of who had the disease. In 1996, BSE became linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), also known as Mad Cow Disease, a variant of BSE. Around 178 people have died from CJD over the last couple of decades, which can manifest years after eating infected meat. Worldwide, farmers have slaughtered millions of cows to prevent the spread of the disease.
H5N1 Bird Flu jumped to humans in 1997. Also known as Avian Influenza, Bird Flu occurs naturally in the wild bird population. Both direct and indirect contact with birds spreads the virus to humans. Since then, over 300 million geese and 1.5 million chickens have been slaughtered to control the disease. The disease continues to affect people today. Over 800 cases and 400 deaths were reported between 2003 and 2019. Bird Flu is currently endemic in chicken populations in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) was first discovered in humans in 2002 in Southern China. Over 800 people died from the disease, and thousands of farmed palm civets were killed before it was declared contained in 2003.
H7N7 is another variant of Avian Influenza that was first detected in humans in 2003. As with its predecessor, H7N7 is passed from direct or indirect contact with birds. The virus also appeared to pass from human to human and infected as many as 2,000 people. Over 30 million birds were slaughtered in the Netherlands alone to contain this virus.
H1N1-Swine Flu first appeared in humans in 2009 in the United States. The disease seems to have been accelerated by the live export pig trade between the US and Mexico. Between 151,700 and 575,000 deaths have been attributed to Swine Flu.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) first showed itself in humans in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. The illness is linked to the rising camel population, kept mainly for meat and milk. It has since spread to at least 27 countries and has a fatality rate of 35%.
Nipah Virus, or Japanese Encephalitis, was first detected in humans in 1999. The disease will jump directly from pigs to humans and has a fatality rate of 40-75%. Farmers killed over 300,000 in 1999 in efforts to control the disease.
FACTORY FARMS BREED PANDEMICS
The facts don’t lie. Factory farms create a perfect breeding ground for the transmission of infectious diseases. Farmed animals are bred for specific traits and are more genetically similar than they otherwise might have been. Genetic similarities mean the virus is much less likely to encounter a genetic variant that may be able to stop or slow down its transmission rate. The result is it can easily tear through an entire flock or herd in a brief period. Add to that overcrowding, stress, and living in their ammonia-saturated waste, and you have all the ingredients for a perfect storm.
“The bird-flu virus, influenza H5N1, has a mortality rate of around 60-65%, but it has not yet developed human-to-human transmission. If this virus does develop to human-to-human transmission, we could be in a really serious pandemic. We need to prepare for the next major pandemic. – Professor Robert Bragg
Recently, a panel made up of twenty-two of the world’s leading experts from fields such as epidemiology, zoology, public health, disease ecology, comparative pathology, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, wildlife health, mathematical modelling, economics, law, and public policy came together to create the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) #PandemicsReport. This report is one of the most in-depth studies on the links between pandemic risk and nature since the Covid-19 outbreak. It states that we need to “reduce the consumption, globalized agriculture expansion and trade” that the panel states cause pandemics such as Covid-19.
“This could include modifying previous calls for taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production or other forms of high pandemic risk consumption, “says the report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
CHANGING OUR RELATIONSHIP TO ANIMALS
Unlike similar government reports, the IPBES report advocates for “not only less consumption of wildlife that host pathogens like COVID-19, but also less consumption of domestic livestock that can bridge those pathogens to humans. The livestock trade, it notes, also releases pathogens through deforestation.” The report points out that zoonotic pandemics are not caused by wildlife but by human actions that disrupt ecosystems that naturally keep pathogens in balance.
PREVENTING THE NEXT PANDEMIC
Global consumers, who have already been hit hard by long-term economic upheaval from the pandemic, are also subjected to high volatility food costs and lack of food security, even when these viruses stay within animal hosts. Despite which route the current Covid-19 zoonotic transmission took, humanity’s appetite for meat and animal products relies on large-scale animal farming, which is neither humane, wise, nor realistic for the long term.
As human populations around the globe increase, there is a desperate need for large-scale change. We can’t sustain this broken system, and we shouldn’t want to. Now is the time to face up to the fact that our current way is obsolete and broken. It is unstable, unsustainable, non-efficient, and dangerous. Removing animals from our food system and embracing new food technologies could drastically decrease the risk of future pandemics and provide food security for the world.