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From December 14, hens, turkeys and other captive birds in parts of the UK will have to be kept indoors to prevent the spread of bird flu. Vets in England, Scotland and Wales made the decision after a number of cases were detected among captive and wild birds. 

What is Happening?

A turkey farm in Norfolk in the UK is among those to have had an outbreak of the H5N8 bird flu strain. The birds will be culled to prevent the spread. 

The Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs have not given an end date for the measures, but the department says that they will be kept under “regular review.” 

You might also like: Singapore is the First Country to Approve a Lab-Grown Meat Product

Farmers who are forced to move their birds indoors in circumstances such as these may continue to market the meat as “free range” as long as the measures do not last longer than 12 weeks. For eggs, this is 16 weeks. After this point, the eggs must be downgraded to “barn produced.”

Livestock- which includes poultry- accounts for around 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year, roughly the equivalent of the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined. A 2018 study shows that cutting meat consumption is the best single environmental action a person can take. 

Authorities in the coastal province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN) in South Africa have confirmed that there is an outbreak of Brucellosis, a bacterial zoonotic disease which causes miscarriages and infertility in livestock and people, in the province. There are currently over 400 confirmed cases. 

The KZN Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has advised farmers that if an animal tests positive for the bacteria, they should be taken to an abattoir as “it cannot be healed.” It also said that it would conduct blood tests of the cattle to check whether they are safe for human consumption. 

What is Happening?

You might also like: Tristan da Cunha Island Creates Marine Protected Area Three Times the Size of the UK

Dr Alicia Cloete, a state veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, says, “Currently, the risk of [this] disease is high due to very few heifers being vaccinated, very few herds being adequately tested, and a lack of movement control of potentially diseased and diseased livestock. If you do not protect your herd from this disease, you are risking the health of your animals, the health of your family and farmworkers, and the health of your business’s profitability and growth,” she said.

In September, at least 3 200 people in the northwestern province of Gansu, China, contracted Brucellosis, in an outbreak caused by a leak at a biopharmaceutical company late last year.

 

Vietnam has banned the import and trade of wildlife, dead or alive, as well as wildlife products, and announced a crackdown on illegal wildlife markets. The move comes as part of efforts to reduce the risk of future pandemics such as COVID-19, and has been applauded by conservationists.

The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, issued a directive halting the trading of wild species, as well as products like eggs, organs or body parts. It also calls for tougher punishment against people involved in illegal hunting, killing or advertising of wild animals. 

The announcement has been welcomed by conservation groups, who have previously accused the government of being complacent in the fight against the trade of endangered species. In February, 14 conservation organisations in Vietnam sent a joint letter warning the government that ‘new viruses will continue to move from wildlife to people while illegal wildlife trade and wildlife consumptions continue’. This sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

You might also like: How to Prevent the Next Pandemic

Vietnam is one of Asia’s biggest consumers of wildlife products, and the wildlife trade is thought to be a billion-dollar industry. The most frequently smuggled animal goods include tiger parts, rhino horn and pangolins. Animals are also bought as pets of status symbols. 

There is also a flourishing online wildlife trade, where images of species are posted on Facebook and YouTube. 

Steven Galster, chairman of the anti-trafficking group Freeland, says, “Vietnam is to be congratulated for recognising that COVID-19 and other pandemics are linked to the wildlife trade. This trade must be banned as a matter of international and public health security.” 

However, some warn that the ban is not far-reaching enough. Nguyen Van Thai, director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, says that the directive ‘is insufficient as some uses of wildlife such as medicinal use or wild animals being kept as pets are not covered’. Others warn that enforcement across the country’s borders may pose a challenge. 

The global wildlife trade has come under great scrutiny following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated at a market in Wuhan, China, where animals such as snakes, beavers and badgers were sold. The Chinese government has since banned the wildlife trade and has placed a temporary ban on such markets. 

Featured image by: Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc.

How can we prevent the next pandemic? In an interview with Yale Environment 360, science author David Quammen says that the COVID-19 pandemic stems from “our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, intrusive, and disruptive.” Preventing the next pandemic requires that we rethink our current systems and change them where necessary.

In Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover, he details how as we continue to disrupt the natural world, viruses are increasingly spreading from wild animal populations to humans.

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (like Zika, Ebola, avian influenza, SARS, and MERS) that was passed from animals to humans. This is corroborated by a new study that found that domesticated animals and wildlife, like bats and rodents, are responsible for many zoonotic viruses. 

How we eat, live, travel and consume energy all influence our interaction with the rest of the natural world. In a Scientific American article, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that deforestation, intensive farming and climate change are some of the main reasons for a virus spillover into the human population. Many studies have linked deforestation, climate change and loss of biodiversity to economic situations, global production of goods and unequal resource distribution between rich and poor nations which can lead to pandemics. New pandemics will emerge unless priority is given to reducing consumption levels, eliminating wildlife trade and economic inequalities and creating sustainable production systems for people and the environment. 

You might also like: Japan Tackles Plastic Waste by Charging Shoppers for Plastic Bags

How Can We Prevent the Next Pandemic?

Ways to reduce or prevent the occurrence of the next pandemic include ensuring that our contact with wild animals is less disruptive, reducing wildlife trade, consuming less meat and lowering invasive contact with natural ecosystems. Should a pandemic still emerge, Quammen suggests real-time screening of people at airports. Matthew Gray, associate director of the University of Tennessee Center for Wildlife Health, states that the key to reducing the spread of pathogens is a ‘clean trade’ program, in which private industry and government officials work together to implement safer strategies.

In an article in National Geographic, Jonathan Kolby, who has worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service for ten years, observes that the US has no laws specifically requiring disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country, and that the vast majority of wild animal imports are therefore not tested. He adds that most countries- besides the US– lack a government agency that screens wildlife imports for pathogens.

Another crucial way to minimise or even prevent pandemics is to regulate wildlife trade and trafficking. Lee Hannah, senior scientist at Conservation International, recommends that the global wildlife trade be banned, masks and respirators stockpiled, testing infrastructure made readily available and nature taken care of, which may mean that we minimise our contact with wildlife and become more cognisant of the effects of this invasion on natural habitats.

China has announced a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, including in wet markets, like the ones at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan. China has also banned pangolin scales that are used in traditional medicine, although this has been met with controversy despite environmental and animal rights groups generally applauding the move. Finally, the country has offered buyouts to farmers who are breeding wildlife to discourage the practice.  

Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, says that anticipating outbreaks before they occur is also important. This can mean making childhood immunisation and pre-emptive vaccination campaigns a priority or having greater investment in sanitation infrastructure. For less developed countries, a healthcare system that is able to perform basic diagnostics and surveillance services would enable them to detect an outbreak as early as possible and respond quickly. 

Another solution is the One Health approach by the World Health Organization. It is a public strategy that realises the threat from new animal viruses and taps the combined expertise of livestock and wildlife veterinary surgeons, conservationists and ecologists, medical doctors and researchers to tackle it. The One Health strategy is based on the idea that human, animal and environmental health are interrelated and demands that different fields of expertise and government departments work together; however this can result in bottlenecks caused by politics and bureaucracy, according to professionals working on One Health programmes. 

It is vital that governments cooperate on a global level to stop the trade of wildlife and the rapid expansion into habitats to prevent the next pandemic. If they don’t, we can expect to see more and more outbreaks that kill innocent people and bring economies to their knees. 

Featured image by: Dan Bennett

According to a study published in the US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in China have identified a novel strain of swine flu, named G4, that is powerful enough to trigger another pandemic

The genetic descendent from the H1N1 strain, which triggered a pandemic in 2009 that infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151 700 and 575 400 people, contains all of the key properties of being extremely attuned to infect humans, says the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC published a review in early July stating that ‘at this stage the G4 virus has not caused a rise in the risks of a pandemic compared to the past’. It adds however, that ‘reassortment and mutation of influenza viruses is common and they can cause a pandemic. At this moment there is no way to predict when, how or from where new influenza viruses will cause a pandemic’. 

How Was G4 Discovered?

Starting in 2011, researchers extracted approximately 30 000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses across 10 Chinese provinces and in a veterinary hospital in order to isolate potential viruses. From these extractions in China, 179 swine flu viruses were discovered, with the majority recognised as novel types primarily prevalent among pigs since 2016. It was noted that the G4 strain resulted from the reassortment of numerous viruses, including the 2009 H1N1 strain.

In order to examine pig-to-human disease transmission, the researchers conducted numerous experiments on animals- primarily on ferrets- in order to observe and identify early onset symptoms. These examinations revealed that prior immunity acquired from previous exposure to a seasonal flu did not safeguard affected subjects against the G4 virus. 

Upon analysis of antibodies in blood tests taken from 230 members of the Chinese public and 338 swine industry workers, 4.4% and 10.4% respectively were shown to have already been infected- highlighting the possibility of G4 being transmitted between animals and humans. However, the researchers have made it clear that there is a lack of evidence to prove the possibility of human-to-human transmission. It is therefore vital that further research is conducted to obtain enough information to prevent another potential global pandemic. 

The Threat of Factory Farming 

Such a discovery demonstrates that the threat of zoonotic pathogens is ever-looming, and that farmed animals are ideal incubators of novel strains of viruses that are capable of infecting humans. Though the trade and consumption of wildlife have been banned in China, the role that factory farming has in introducing infectious diseases to animals and humans alike, such as swine flu, is equally concerning. 

Pause the System, a local British environmentalist group, emphasise the need for governments to confront the livestock factory farming industry and to tackle the adverse effects that coincide with it- in this case, a potential pandemic. Members of the group explain that factory farming is a perfect breeding ground for diseases and infections as the tight proximity of animals, in combination with the widespread practice of injecting antibiotics into the animals, creates an optimal environment for antibiotic-resistant pathogens to emerge and replicate.

Antibiotics ensure that livestock remain healthy and well, whilst enabling them to extract greater amounts of energy from their food in order to achieve sizable growth. This common procedure in the industry is profit-oriented as it maximises the yield of meat available for trade. Though efficient in this regard, the practice of antibiotic use in factory farming can be extremely detrimental due to the impact it has on the health of workers and consumers . 

What Can Be Done?

Experts encourage close monitoring of swine workers as well as people in close proximity to such workers to observe how the G4 virus is continuing to evolve. 

Furthermore, researchers suggest that intensive factory farming should be ended, while investments into more sustainable sources of protein should be encouraged in order to circumvent another public health emergency.

Advocating for the public to implement more plant-based products into their diets may help decrease the demand for animal products, and thus factory farming. This can be achieved by increasing global awareness and advertising the many benefits of a vegan diet.

Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) top influenza expert during the plight of H1N1 in 2009, suggests that the development of a potential vaccine for the G4 would be of great benefit, noting that early investment in a cure could help overcome future complications.   

Authorities in Inner Mongolia, a region in China, issued a warning on July 5 after a hospital reported one confirmed case of the Bubonic plague of unknown origin. Another patient suspected of being infected with the disease was confirmed a day later, who was reported to have experienced a fever after coming into contact with a marmot.  

The confirmed case was found in the city of Bayannur, and was shortly followed by a citywide Level 3 warning for plague prevention- the second lowest warning in the quaternary system. 

The second suspected case involves a 15-year-old, who had apparently contracted the disease through a marmot hunted by a dog. Neighbouring countries were put on alert for any sign of contagion and have begun to patrol areas known for marmot hunting in order to warn the public about the associated dangers. 

This comes as researchers in China have identified a novel strain of swine flu, named G4, that they warn is powerful enough to trigger another pandemic. Additionally, the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) recently released a report warning that zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge if there is insufficient action to adequately protect wildlife and the environment.

What is the Bubonic Plague?

The plague has been identified as the most lethal infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is typically transmitted from animals to humans by fleas. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes in the armpit or groin known as ‘buboes’, fever, chills, headache, muscle fatigue and nausea. Other symptoms include difficulty breathing and chest pain, as well as sepsis which may lead to ‘tissue damage, organ failure and death’. Over 3 200 cases were reported worldwide from 2010 to 2015, with 584 known and recorded deaths.  

The disease can be contracted through various modes, such as through bites from infected fleas, touching or being in close contact with infected animals, having an open wound allowing for the bacterium to infect the host, and/or the inhalation of droplets from infected subjects. 

Marmots are notorious for carrying Yersinia pestis, making them an ideal carrier of the Bubonic plague. The large rodent is often hunted and consumed for the perceived health benefits that it supposedly introduces. 

How Is it Treated?

Treatment today is typically administered through antibiotics, and must occur shortly after infection- if left untreated, the disease becomes lethal, having a 30-60% fatality rate. Early diagnosis established from blood and other body samples helps to deter the progression of infection. 

In May, 2019, it was reported that a Mongolian couple died from the Bubonic plague after consuming raw marmot kidney. 

Known as the Black Death in the Middle Ages, the Bubonic plague was responsible for one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, which killed about 50 million people across Africa, Asia and Europe in the 14th Century

Should We Be Worried?

Dr Matthew Dryden, consultant microbiologist at the University of Southampton, notes that unlike COVID-19, the Bubonic plague is ‘caused by a bacterium which can be readily treated with antibiotics. Though it may appear alarming- another major infectious disease emerging from the East- the problem can be easily managed with modern treatment’. 

The WHO has said that the case is being ‘well-managed’ and that it is ‘not considered high risk’. 

Update July 15: The 15 year-old boy has died of bubonic plague in Mongolia, according to the country’s health ministry.

A report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) warns that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

The experts blame the rise in diseases such as COVID-19, which most likely originated from a bat, on high demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices and the climate crisis, saying that this alters the way that animals and humans interact with one another. 

Neglected zoonotic diseases kill two million people a year, they add. These diseases include Ebola, West Nile virus, SARS, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and rabies. 

You might also like: UN Chief Urges Action For Rebuilding More Resilient Food Systems

What Does the Report Say?

Inger Andersen, under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme, says, “In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Over the last two decades and before COVID-19, zoonotic diseases caused economic damage of $100bn (£80bn).” COVID-19 is set to cost the global economy USD$9tn (£7.2tn) over two years.

She adds, “These are often communities with complex development problems, high dependence on livestock and proximity to wildlife.” 

Meat production, for instance, has increased by 260% in the last 50 years.

“Dams, irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25% of infectious diseases in humans. Travel, transport and food supply chains have erased borders and distances. Climate change has contributed to the spread of pathogens,” Andersen says. 

The report gives governments 10 recommendations on how to prevent future outbreaks, including strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems, incentivising sustainable land management practices and managing landscapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife. 

“To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment,” Andersen says.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” she adds.

The report singles out Africa as a potential ‘source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks’ owing to the continent’s experience with and response to a number of zoonotic epidemics, including most recently the Ebola outbreak. 

ILRI Director General, Jimmy Smith, says, “The situation on the continent today is ripe for intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and facilitating the emergence and spread of new ones. But with their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks. They are applying, for example, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings, and they are joining up human, animal and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives.” One Health approaches unite public health, veterinary and environmental expertise as the best way for preventing and responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

The report was released on World Zoonoses Day, observed by research institutions on July 6, which commemorates the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur. On July 6 1885, Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies.

Meanwhile, Chinese reports say that a city in Inner Mongolia has confirmed a case of the bubonic plague, with a second suspected case. It is unclear how the first patient became infected, however the second suspected case, a 15-year old boy, had apparently been in contact with a marmot hunted by a dog, a tweet from The Global Times said. 

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