As the unprecedented global health emergency continues to unfold, a new United Nations report says humans must lower stress on the natural environment to prevent the next pandemic. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has a zoonotic origin, meaning it jumped from animals to humans, and the U.N. report finds that such diseases are spreading with greater frequency due to human activity, including industrial farming and the climate crisis. “Rather than focusing on the symptoms, we were looking at the causes,” says Delia Grace, lead author of the report, veterinary epidemiologist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya and professor of food safety at the U.K. Natural Resources Institute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. As the global health emergency caused by the coronavirus continues to unfold, we look now at a new United Nations report on how to prevent the next pandemic.
The COVID-19 virus has a zoonotic origin, meaning it jumped from animals to humans. It spilled over. Other zoonotic diseases include Ebola, MERS, HIV/AIDS and the West Nile virus. Researchers with the United Nations found zoonotic diseases are spreading with greater frequency because of stresses humans have placed on animal habitats, including industrial farming and the climate crisis.
Their new report outlines steps for how to break this chain of transmission. It was published Monday, which was World Zoonoses Day, commemorating the work of the French biologist Louis Pasteur. It was July 6, 1885, when Pasteur administered the first vaccine against rabies, a zoonotic disease.
For more, we’re going to Nairobi,, Kenya, where we’re joined by Delia Grace, lead author of this report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute. She’s also professor of food safety systems at the Natural Resources Institute.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Delia Grace. If you can start off by laying out what you have found?
DELIA GRACE: Thank you, and it’s a pleasure to be here and to share some of the findings from my report.
One of the novelties or the unique aspects of this report is that while there have been many attempts to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and how to manage it and how to deal with the economic and other social kind of aspects of it, there has been much less attention paid to the actual causes of COVID, why it came, and will something similar come again. And this is what our report focuses on. It’s not so much about how to deal with pandemics, but why they come in the first place and how we can prevent them or catch them early so they do less harm.
Our main findings, I think, were to focus firstly on the drivers of zoonoses, of emerging zoonoses. So, rather than focusing on the symptoms, we were looking at the causes. And then, our next major part of the report was looking at recommendations and what should be done. So, that’s just a quick overview. And maybe if you have some specific questions, I can go back to those in more detail.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Delia Grace, before we get into more details from your report, I also want to say that it’s striking that already before the coronavirus, 2 million people every year died from zoonotic diseases. So, can you say a little about what those diseases are and why they’ve not been talked about? You also, in the report, anticipate further pandemics from these — potential pandemics from some of these diseases. Could you talk about what those are and what areas are most at risk?
DELIA GRACE: So, in epidemiology, which is the study of diseases, we often make a distinction between what we call endemic disease and epidemic disease. So, endemic diseases are those which are present more or less continuously in a population. And the epidemic diseases are ones which suddenly increase in their geographical spread or the number of people they affect.
So, most of the people dying of zoonoses are dying of the first type, the endemic diseases, the diseases which have been mainly controlled in rich countries, and so most of the sickness and death occurs in poor countries. And that’s why, I think, it has received less attention. If these diseases were equally prevalent or common in rich countries, they would get a lot more notice, a lot more news coverage, and maybe better control.
On the other hand, it’s the emerging diseases which are new and which can spread rapidly from country to country, like we’ve seen with COVID-19 and like we saw with West Nile virus and Riff Valley fever and avian influenza and swine flu. So, these are the diseases which typically kill far fewer people. I mean, COVID-19 has killed a lot of people, but some of the other diseases — mad cow disease, the SARS, sudden acute respiratory syndrome, which was a problem in the early 2000s — actually had less effect on human health but more effect on human economies, and that was because they got into rich countries.
So, yes. So, a lot of the problem of these zoonotic diseases is poverty and lack of development and people living in places where they’re in very close contact with animals, sometimes in the same house — chickens kept under the bed, because if they’re not under the bed, they’re going to be stolen — and also health services which are not very good. So, this combination of poverty, people highly dependent on animals, degraded environments and poor health services is a lethal cocktail for these zoonotic diseases, diseases which jump between people — animals and people, and the other way around, people and animals.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how the climate crisis plays into this, and this whole issue of it’s not animals encroaching on land where humans are, it’s humans increasingly encroaching — for example, the issue of deforestation forcing out animals from their natural habitat who would not want to be interacting with humans?
DELIA GRACE: Yes, it’s land fragmentation. It’s also extractive industries, especially in Africa, Southeast Asia. We’ve seen a big uptick in things like logging, mining. Many of these require roads to get in, to get the resources out. Many of these resources are not being — they’re being exported. They’re not being used by the local communities. But these roads also then offer a way to get the livestock or the wildlife out from their pristine, their previously kind safe, isolated areas into the emerging urban markets, where they’re often in demand by wealthy elites as exotic foods, which can — yeah, which provides income for very poor people. So, habitat fragmentation, land-use change has a big role in this.
In terms of climate change, it’s not so much that it drives the emergence of disease, that it helps disease jump from one animal to another or from animals to people, but rather that it changes the distribution of pathogens — that’s of the things which cause disease — and also what we call vectors, which are often insects or other animals that move pathogens around, such as mosquitoes or midges or flies. And many of these are dependent on climate factors, such as humidity, rainfall, growing season, air temperature. So, when you get climate change, you get vectors and disease-causing organisms moving, coming to new places. And what they encounter there is naive populations, people who have not been exposed to these. And that’s when you can get outbreaks of epidemics of disease. So climate change is less a direct driver and more a facilitator of these pandemics we are increasingly seeing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Grace, many of the diseases, zoonotic diseases, have their origins now in the Global South. One thinks of Ebola, the West Nile virus and earlier coronaviruses. But you’ve pointed out that previously, ’til as recently as the year 2000 — so just 20 years ago — most new human diseases, zoonotic diseases, originated in the western seaboards of Europe and North America. So, what is it that changed?
DELIA GRACE: Yes. I think there’s — I mean, one complication is that it’s really only in the last century we’ve had good records of emerging diseases. And certainly we have better ability to detect the diseases in rich countries, whereas that is now changing. Some of the best diagnostic facilities are now in Southeast Asia and China and in other countries. So there is an element of our ability to detect diseases has increased.
But there also, we believe — and, you know, we have published on this — it also appears to be driven by the switch in low- and middle-income countries to highly intensive industrial agriculture, which was not a phenomenon even a hundred years ago, and also the increasingly rapid degradation of natural resources, driven by population growth but also people’s increasing demand for animal protein. And our study we did in the last decade suggested that emerging diseases were now shifting increasingly. They were, A, getting more common and, B, increasingly coming from the Global South.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Uganda, mentioned in the report as a leading example of how to manage zoonotic diseases?
DELIA GRACE: We actually see several — you know, one of the most encouraging and saddening issues with these emerging diseases is that they are actually not terribly difficult to control, if you only invest in them in the right places and at the right time.
So, we gave an example in Uganda, where basically it was community-level workers. So it’s basically training communities to — and working with them and learning from them, because they are the people who often have the greatest knowledge of the diseases they face, but they don’t have the ability always to report them or to manage them. So it’s basically working with communities in order to manage diseases at a local level before they become a problem. And this was an example of training environmental officers who could work with the communities, in the communities, at relatively low cost, and was able to demonstrate good benefits on reduction of disease control.
In Kenya, too, where I work, we have what’s called the Zoonotic Disease Unit, which brings together the government, different ministries with the government, from health, from environment, from veterinary, as well as researchers like myself. And again, this unit has been extremely successful in dealing with these zoonotic diseases, because zoonoses occur, as we say, at the intersection. They occur at the intersection of humans, wildlife, livestock and the environment. And things which happen at the intersection can best be managed at the intersection. And that’s how bringing together these groups has been very successful in Africa, I would say more successful than in Europe or in America.
AMY GOODMAN: Delia Grace, we want to thank you very much for being with us. A quick question: Another, what people don’t usually think of as a zoonotic disease, I would guess, is Lyme disease in the United States, this chronic condition — right? — where ticks are transferring the virus into humans.
DELIA GRACE: Yes, I mean, and that is a classic disease, again, which has environmental and wildlife elements and land-use change. We identified land-use change as a key driver. So, we’ve seen a complete ecological transformation, especially in parts of Europe and northern America. And this has allowed diseases to behave in ways, partly because the predators were removed from the system, so therefore you got far more deer, and then you get far more ticks. And then also you get people wanting to interact with the environment. And then you get outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.
And that can be managed best — one of the other key premises for this one health approach is that rather than treating the sick human, waiting 'til the human get sick and then trying to treat them, we treat the environment. We try to get a healthy environment so that people don't get sick in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: Delia Grace, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Of course, we have to comment that this week in the United States, the worst surge for coronavirus during the pandemic is the time that the president of the United States is pulling the United States out of the World Health Organization. Delia Grace, lead author of a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute titled “Preventing the next pandemic–Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.” We’ll link to that at democracynow.org. She’s also professor of food safety systems at the Natural Resources Institute, speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we will talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belgium’s legacy there. We will speak with the great-grandniece of King Leopold II, who considered the Congo his own personal fiefdom. Stay with us.