I was a pandemic specialist for 15 years, leading projects under the emerging pandemic threats program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Now I am sheltering in place in semi-rural Maryland and wondering how to reduce the risk of future global outbreaks.
The answer is a long way from my journey stealthily following pickup trucks full of live chickens through narrow alleys in Jakarta to locate illegal slaughtering operations in neighborhood basements during the avian influenza outbreaks in the mid-to late 2000s. And it’s just as far from the meeting I attended at the Ebola testing center in Liberia, where the walls were streaked with bat urine dripping from the ceiling, where hundreds of bats roosted.
But it is surprisingly close to the meat counter at my local supermarket, because the risk of pandemic threats has a great deal to do with human’s demand for animal protein, whether that meat is raised on a farm or comes from the wild.
The appetite for animal protein brings humans and animals into contact where so-called spillover events — when a virus jumps from a host species, such as a bat, to new a species, such as humans — are more likely to occur. Since more than 60% of new infectious human diseases arise in animals, and 70% of those come from wildlife, we need to better understand and address the human dimension of pandemic threats.
The links between disease threats and meat have an economic dimension. Poverty is a reason why millions of poor people hunt, buy, and consume wild animals. Yet prosperity, too, drives the demand for wild animals, as high-end exotic wildlife restaurants around the world demonstrate.
In the livestock sector, many poor people depend on backyard chickens, pigs, or goats for income and nutrition. At the same time, growing prosperity leads to the rise of commercial poultry and swine operations in emerging economies, which have been linked to spillover events. For example, large-scale animal farming facilities became an ideal breeding ground for the H5N1 avian flu virus in Southeast Asia between 2003 and 2008, though they still happen sporadically.
Success in reducing worldwide poverty has had an unintended consequence. As incomes rise, more and more people choose to spend some of their additional income on meat, a measure called the income elasticity of demand. As millions of poor people move up to lower-middle and middle-class income levels over the next 10 to 15 years, we can be reasonably certain that:
- People will want, and be able to buy, more meat. Because wildlife will continue to be a major source of this protein, interactions between wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans will proliferate.
- Large-scale animal production systems will expand, with all the associated risks of incubating swine flu, avian flu, and other diseases.
- We are likely to see more spillover events and future pandemics — unless this is addressed.
What can be done to mitigate pandemic threats? There is surely a role for virus hunters, prowling the world’s forests and farmland for emerging pathogens. But there is equal, if not more, value in immediate actions to reduce underlying risks.
Governments, foundations, and the private sector must come together to focus on select species associated with spillover events — bats and primates among wildlife and poultry and swine among domesticated food animals — and viruses linked to acute respiratory distress, such as influenza A and coronaviruses.
In the case of wildlife, there are several actions we can take to reduce risk:
- Regulate or ban wildlife and live animal meat markets, sometimes known as wet markets.
- In countries that lack the resources and perhaps the political will to close such markets, implement mitigation strategies such as segregating species and enforcing biosecurity requirements.
- Equip countries to assess their risk in places where humans interact with wild and domesticated animals, such as markets and feeding operations, and design programs to change behavior accordingly.
There is also much we can do to reduce the risk from poultry and swine:
- Mobilize multinational companies along with national poultry and pork trade associations to improve biosecurity — systems that prevent the spread of infectious pathogens from infected animals to susceptible animals — at their facilities and those of smaller businesses.
- Do not locate poultry and swine facilities near wildlife areas to minimize the risk of viral spillover and train small-scale producers to shield their animals from wildlife.
- Empower institutions such as the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization to monitor and identify countries and companies that fail to implement these best practices and mobilize public pressure and technical assistance to address any shortcomings.
Meat consumption has ramifications beyond Covid-19, including the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, environmental sustainability, and diet-related health impacts. Since worldwide demand for animal protein is certain to rise over the next decade or two, we must become better attuned to and committed to act upon the spillover risks that come with our global preference for meat.
Jerry Martin is a consultant and the former director of global health security at DAI, where he led a series of international projects on pandemic preparedness from 2005 to 2019.