Covid-19: lack of research capacity risks future pandemics

Leading scientists call for substantial investment in wildlife health research.

The UK should invest in better understanding of diseases in wildlife populations, and the routes to these becoming human diseases to drastically reduce the risk of future - possibly even worse - global pandemics like COVID-19. That is the conclusion of scientists at ZSL’s (Zoological Society of London) Institute of Zoology, which specialises in understanding so-called ‘zoonotic diseases’ – those that transfer from wildlife to humans. 

The UK Government has committed £46 million to Covid-19 vaccine development. While an effective vaccination programme is vital to the short-term response to the disease – and should be prioritised – longer-term preventative research must not be ignored, according to ZSL.

Many of the biggest threats to public health including Covid-19, SARS, Ebola and Zika, began as infections that transfer from animals to humans. At least 61% of all human pathogens (agents that cause disease) are ‘zoonotic’, and approximately 75% of all new human diseases identified in recent years have come via this route.

green piccture of coronavirus

Yet there is still much we don’t understand about how human expansion into wildlife habitats, closer contact with wild animal populations and the growth of the (legal and illegal) global trade in wildlife, increases the risk of cross-species disease transmission.

Wildlife health researchers and conservationists at ZSL (Zoological Society of London) are therefore calling on the UK Government and philanthropy to join forces and invest in a UK-based dedicated centre of excellence to understand the reservoirs of diseases in wildlife, the possible routes of transmission to other animals – and to humans – and ways to prevent zoonotic epidemics before they start. 

Dominic Jermey CVO OBE Director General of ZSL says: “No-one knows how many infections circulate in wildlife populations or under what circumstances they could create the next human pandemic. But if we know the risk factors for zoonotic virus spill-over, we can put in place safety measures to stop it happening in the first place without adversely affecting wild animals in which the viruses occur naturally. These links between wildlife and human health are increasingly recognised but still very poorly understood. Often public health research, practice and the implementation of policy happens without consideration of how natural systems work, and the pathways through which people’s health is affected by wildlife’s.” 

Man leaning on post, looking serious
Dominic Jermey CVO OBE, Director General of ZSL

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises the necessity of this approach stating: “Addressing [zoonoses] requires collaborative, cross-sectoral efforts of human and animal health systems and a multidisciplinary approach that considers the complexities of the ecosystems where humans and animals coexist.” 

Jermey adds: “ZSL has 200 years’ experience as leaders in this field. Our research has furthered medical understanding of many diseases including Ebola and tuberculosis. The scale and frequency of emerging zoonoses like Covid-19 however, calls for a step change in investment. We are seeing widespread reforms in British science so I hope the Government will take this opportunity to make multi-disciplinary wildlife health research the priority it must be to prevent similar pandemics in future.”

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