Scientists who study the danger to humans and food production from zoonotic diseases, those that can jump from animals to humans, say there are ways to prevent the next global pandemic at a fraction of the cost of ending a massive outbreak. 

Andy Dobson, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, said it would take $260 billion over 10 years to prevent the next pandemic. By comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic is now estimated to cost $30 trillion to $40 trillion, he said at the recent Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science

The money would go mostly to end the wild meat trade in China ($19.4 billion) and reduce tropical deforestation by 40% in most regions ($5.6 billion). The rest would be spent on early disease prevention and control, monitoring the wildlife trade, and reducing spillover disease in livestock.

“The bottom line is if we want to stop this from happening again, we have to put money into stopping the wildlife trade, we have to stop wildlife consumption, we have to stop destroying tropical forests,” Dobson said. “We've got to hire many, many vets as they're the frontline troops.”

“We're seeing newly emergent diseases all the time,” said James Roth, a professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. “There's a very impressive list of diseases that have caused problems in the last 40 years. And we’re likely to see a similar list in the next 40 years of human diseases that are zoonotic, that we aren't aware of now.”

James Roth

James Roth, Iowa State

Dobson and Roth said that population growth naturally increases the risk of a pandemic. “Essentially, lots of these emergencies are being driven by the size of the human population,” Dobson said. “The bigger it gets, and the faster it reproduces, the more outbreaks we would expect.”

Roth, who also spoke at the lecture, points in particular to the zoonotic Nipah virus in Malaysia, which in 1999 forced the extermination of nearly half of that nation’s 2.4 million pigs. “Malaysia did not have a large number of pigs,” he said, noting its predominantly Muslim population, which does not eat pork.

By comparison, approximately 300 million pigs in China have died or been depopulated by African swine fever, which has most recently been found on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic — “a very alarming event,” Roth said. "There's a lot of concern that this virus has been very hard to stop.”

“There have been no new cases of Nipah in humans or swine in Malaysia since 1999,” Roth said. “However, almost every year there are a few cases in people in Bangladesh and India.”

Although transmission from fruit bats is believed to be the cause of those human cases, Roth said there also is some evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Roth said the habitat of the fruit bat species that carries the virus overlaps with a pig-heavy area of southeastern China.  

“What if the Nipah virus emerged from fruit bats into this pig-dense region, spread exactly like it did in Malaysia very rapidly from pig to pig, or like African swine fever did in China, but is a zoonotic disease with a high case fatality rate?” Roth asked rhetorically. “It would be a very, very difficult situation to deal with. And we've known for 20 years that this is a threat.”

In a follow-up interview with Agri-Pulse, Roth called Nipah “a huge concern, if it would get into pigs and spread like African swine fever did.”

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The U.S. government is paying more attention to the issue of zoonotic diseases. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently asked for comment on a proposed framework for surveillance for COVID-19 and other emerging zoonotic diseases through the American Rescue Plan enacted by Congress in March.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture said in its comments that it fully supports APHIS’ proposal for an “early warning system to alert public health partners to potentially prevent and limit the next zoonotic disease outbreak. NASDA supports a One Health mission of collaboration to accomplish the goal of safeguarding animal, public, and environmental health comprehensively.”

Liz Wagstrom

Liz Wagstrom, NPPC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the “One Health plan "is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment."

Industry also is working to prevent the entry of viruses into the United States. Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, said the group has put together a task force on feed mitigants to find ways to prevent viral transmission through feed.

Last month, a year-long study of the pork industry “found no major areas have been overlooked in efforts to prevent the introduction of African swine fever to the United States,” the Swine Health Information Center said. SHIC funded the study along with the pork checkoff.

Roth also points to “secure food supply plans” developed by USDA, industry, Iowa State University and others for pork, poultry, beef, dairy, sheep and wool. Those plans “provide guidance for livestock producers to voluntarily prepare before a foreign animal disease outbreak to limit exposure of their animals through enhanced biosecurity,” according to the plans' website.

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