Coronaviruses are not new. SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19, is among the group of coronaviruses that have been among humans for hundreds of thousands of years. However, something has changed. Alterations in land use and animal-based food production, in addition to wildlife trade, are among the drivers of emerging diseases, increasing the rate at which new pathogens become public health threats. Moreover, the previous stability in ecosystems that reduced the likelihood of spillover events is now diminishing.
While most new diseases affecting humans have had their roots in nature, the frequency of their emergence has accelerated in recent decades. Some of these diseases are zoonoses that are maintained in wild animal populations and passed on to humans directly; e.g. Lassa Fever and Marburg virus. Another category of pathogens has evolved from wildlife and adapted to spread between and be sustained by humans, such as measles, mumps and HIV - and apparently also the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses.
The precise point at which the virus changed and established itself in humans has not been confirmed for COVID-19. To prevent future catastrophe for humans, domestic animals and wildlife alike, it is critical that we improve our understanding of the mechanisms, pathways and drivers of such events.
We have experienced three major emergence events from the coronavirus family into human populations in 17 years, with the SARS epidemic in 2003; the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) first detected in 2012 (apparently acquired from domestic camels); and the current global crisis, which appears to have started in 2019. The precise point at which the virus changed and established itself in humans has not been confirmed for SARS or COVID-19. When a virus’ animal host or its mechanism for evolution in humans is unknown, it can be extremely difficult to predict epidemic or pandemic threats. To prevent future catastrophe for humans, domestic animals and wildlife alike, it is thus critical that we improve our understanding of the mechanisms, pathways and drivers of such events, and develop international and national systems to assess and reduce emerging disease risks at their source.
At present, there is no intergovernmental agency with the mandate to oversee wildlife health, and fragmented responsibility at country level means that this task typically falls between environment and veterinary services. Additionally, a World Bank report published in 2012 pointed to countries’ extremely low or lacking investment in wildlife health services, a shortfall that remains widespread today. As a result, deficits in wildlife health oversight, surveillance, and management leave the world chronically vulnerable to emerging diseases from nature. Thus, we call for the designation of a global authority for wildlife disease to foster development of countries’ capacities to manage disease threats to and from wild animals, including at the interface between human, domestic animal, and wild animal populations.
Such an agency would provide guidance and investment for wildlife health at the levels that the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) provide to countries in the domains of human and domestic animal health, respectively. This authority would need to work very closely with established actors in the health sector under a One Health umbrella, and ensure sufficient coverage of wildlife and other environmental dimensions presently missing from initiatives under human or domestic animal health agencies.
Lowland Gorilla, Kabo logging area, Republic of the Congo. The interface between wildlife and extractive industries provides an opportunity for disease emergence and needs more holistic management.
Photo: Michael D. Kock, 2004.
Further, it is critical that each country has the capacity to conduct sentinel surveillance in wild animals in both natural settings and human landscapes to detect and investigate unusual mortality events, and implement risk reduction measures where high-risk species, practices or conditions are present. This will require greater involvement of biodiversity managers in disease prevention and detection programmes, and more scrutiny of human development in very biodiverse regions in particular to avoid risks to biodiversity, domestic animals and human health and well-being. Veterinary services could provide valuable support in the effective design of control strategies for livestock and other domestic animal diseases that also threaten wildlife, such as rabies and peste des petits ruminants. Public and environmental health services can offer valuable insight into management of wildlife in public spaces and minimising disease risks in rewilding activities.
It is critical that each country has the capacity to conduct sentinel surveillance in wild animals in both natural settings and human landscapes to detect and investigate unusual mortality events, and implement risk reduction measures where high-risk species, practices or conditions are present.
Biodiversity-sensitive disease management is also crucial. Wildlife has repeatedly been the inappropriate target of destruction as part of control efforts during disease emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic. This practice is detrimental not only to wild animal populations but may actually increase disease risk. Bats, in particular, are often the target of these killings, yet the more than 1,200 bat species play vital roles in ecosystems, benefitting human health and economies around the world via ecosystem services including pest control, pollination and seed dispersal. It is important that risk reduction strategies are science-based and environmentally sensitive, consistent with the One Health approach, which takes into account the connections between human, animal and environmental health. Constructive tactics include reducing human-wildlife contact and maintaining and maximizing ecosystem health wherever possible.
Liberian scientists and community members discuss zoonotic disease risk reduction, including tips on living safely with bats.
Photo: EcoHealth Alliance 2019
Disease risk is not uniform across species or regions, nor is it restricted to international trade. Similar to the way in which National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans identify country-specific threats to biodiversity in order to shape conservation management priorities, there need to be processes to assess zoonotic disease risk and reduce it at national and local levels. Thus, we encourage the development of country-specific emerging disease risk mitigation plans.
Many countries currently have limited access to laboratory diagnostics to investigate suspected cases of wildlife diseases, requiring international coordination for sample analysis. Unfortunately, well-intentioned conservation and wildlife trade frameworks can inadvertently slow down the international movement of emergency diagnostic specimens and lead to serious delays such as those seen during recent Saiga antelope mass mortality events. A resolution passed at the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed on simplified procedures to enable the timely movement of diagnostic specimens in species of conservation concern. To help ensure that all countries have access to laboratories for wildlife diagnostics, this resolution must be urgently implemented, strengthened, and prioritised by CITES authorities at country and Secretariat level to significantly reduce the burden of effort required to quickly move samples in emergencies.
Logging road in a tropical forest close to Quesso, north of Odzala-Kokoua NP, Republic of the Congo. Indiscriminate logging has had a major impact on ecosystems, resulting in habitat loss, ecological disturbance and disease emergence.
Photo: Michael D. Kock 2004
Pandemic prevention requires dedicated action at global, national and local levels, and the expertise of animal and environmental sectors is key to predicting and preventing the emergence of disease, as part of robust and prepared global public health systems.
Finally, it would be beneficial to strengthen safeguarding frameworks to include novel and known diseases risks. Risk and impact assessments for economic development projects (e.g. agricultural development, extractive industries, tourism), which aim to consider environmental and social factors, do not currently account for possible zoonotic disease risk. Adding this component could help governments, development banks and project planners identify potential threats and better mitigate disease risk from the outset. Together with OIE, IUCN has developed Guidelines for Wildlife Disease Risk Analysis to support the design of qualitative and quantitative assessments.
Pandemic prevention requires dedicated action at global, national and local levels, and the expertise of animal and environmental sectors is key to predicting and preventing the emergence of disease, as part of robust and prepared global public health systems. The IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group stands ready to work with IUCN Members and partners to support and strengthen the institutions, frameworks, and measures needed for a safer and healthier future for all humans and animals.