Zoonotic diseases are rife this century: Globalised world requires global code of conduct to overcome this threat

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A crisis does not emerge out of thin air; it has underlying causes. And most of the underlying causes, if not all, are in front of our eyes; it’s just that we refuse to see and act on them. The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) crisis is not a black swan; it was predicted and could have been prevented.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have seen the emergence and outbreaks of multiple zoonotic diseases – infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses that jump from animals to humans. Some of them are new to humans, and hence we do not have immunity against them and some re-emergence of old diseases. Studies indicate that the frequency of these outbreaks has increased significantly in the last 20 years.

We have had three pandemics since 2000 – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009 and now Covid-19. SARS and Covid-19 spread from civet cats/ pangolin and bats in China and swine flu from an intensive pig farm in Mexico. In between, we have had regional outbreaks of bird flu from poultry, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) from camels, Ebola from monkeys and pigs, Rift Valley fever from livestock, West Nile fever from birds, Zika from monkey and Nipah from bats.

The root cause of all the above diseases can be broadly put under three baskets. First, environmental destruction. Due to deforestation and habitat loss, wild animals and humans are now nearby, leading to the spillover of animal diseases into humans. Ebola, West Nile virus, Nipah and Zika come under this category. Similarly, livestock is also coming in contact with wildlife and transmitting pathogens to people, like the Rift Valley virus.

Second, cultural practices. The practice of eating exotic wildlife, sometimes raw, is spreading novel pathogens to humans. Both SARS and Covid-19 have origin in the wildlife markets in China. But the practice of eating wild animals is not restricted to China; it exists in one form or another across the world.

Third, intensive animal farms. The industrial farming of animals, by keeping animals very close to each other and pumping them with growth promoters like antibiotics, is another cause. Bird flu and swine flu both have their origin in intensive animal farms.

The above causes are not hidden; they are widely known, and different countries have legislation in place to control them. Many countries, including India, have strong laws against deforestation and for curbing the trade and consumption of wildlife. Countries have also put in place regulations to improve practices in animal farms. But many have not acted on these issues. And, in a globalised world, we are only as strong as the weakest link. Weak regulations and poor implementation in one country have global ramifications. This is evident in the case of Covid-19.

Since the outbreak of SARS, it was widely recognised that the presence of a vast reservoir of coronaviruses in horseshoe bats and civet cats, together with the culture of eating exotic animals in China, is a time bomb. Under global pressure, in 2003, China did ban the consumption of civet cats, but it was poorly enforced. It was only in 2018 that China’s legislature passed nationwide laws to ban the farming and consumption of wildlife. These laws are now being rolled out in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic. This is too late, and the global community is paying the price of China’s inaction.

But the fact is, the next novel coronavirus can emerge due to negligence in any country. The current social and economic practices around the world are just too poor to stop the next pandemic. To manage and prevent the next pandemic, the world needs to come together to address the underlying causes of zoonosis.

Zoonoses have killed millions of people in the 21st century (several times more than all the wars and terrorist attacks put together). Their economic cost has ranged from a few billion dollars in the case of regional outbreaks to several trillion dollars for pandemics. They are not a national issue; they are global and require a global response. Countries cannot hide behind sovereignty and not act. The world, therefore, needs a universal code of conduct to address zoonoses urgently. Nothing less will suffice.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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