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Various birds on sale at an animal market in Bali, Indonesia. Scientists will teach veterinarians to detect diseases early in animal populations to help prevent future outbreaks among humans. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

Coronavirus: Asian vets head to Australia to prepare for next pandemic

  • Scientists will teach 200 veterinary surgeons to detect infectious diseases before they leap from animals to humans – like Covid-19 did
  • This is part of a three-year Australian government project and an Indo-Pacific programme to take a more proactive approach to fighting pandemics
As the coronavirus death toll surpasses 250,000 and the world scrambles to find a vaccine, a new scientific task force is headed to the wilderness to try and stop the next pandemic.
After decades of patchy global investment into researching the linkages between animal and human health, more than 40 scientists will embark on an Australian government-funded programme that will teach veterinary surgeons in Southeast Asia and the Pacific how to detect infectious diseases – before they make the leap into the human population.

“The majority of infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they are transmittable from animals to humans,” said Navneet Dhand, associate professor of veterinary biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Sydney.

Live frogs on display at a market in Guangzhou, China. Photo: EPA-EFE

Detecting diseases early in the animal population would help prevent future outbreaks among humans, said Dhand, who helms the effort.

To that end, the Australian government has pledged A$4.3 million (US$2.8 million) to the three-year project that covers 11 countries across the region. It’s part of an existing A$300 million (US$193 million) Indo-Pacific programme that pushes for a more proactive approach to fighting pandemics and strengthening health security.

There is broad scientific consensus that the new coronavirus came from animals, although it is still unknown how and when it made the leap to humans. While researchers are calling for earlier mitigation in the spread of disease as the best defence against future outbreaks, government investment into such strategies has not been nearly consistent enough.

Famous for its unique wildlife and A$48 billion (US$30 billion) agricultural industry that drives much of the economy, Australian scientists say they are in a position to pass on unique knowledge to less-developed regions.

Dhand’s team will train more than 200 veterinary surgeons and para-veterinarians in Southeast Asia to collect and track data from sick animals, both on nature’s frontline and on farms.

Participants will be taught skills like how to examine a sick animal for more than just the prevailing illness apparent when they are called to farms or animal sites, as well as check for signs of spread among other animals they have been in contact with.

They will also learn how to collect animal samples to build out a database that, over time, can pick up on particular ecological trends and animal behaviour patterns. These could show where outbreaks are more likely to occur and how they might spread, giving scientists clues on how the disease is transmitted.

In the long run, these efforts can help stop a disease’s spread before it reaches the stage of being able to jump to humans.

Opportunities for animal diseases to transmit to humans have increased with accelerated urbanisation and population growth. People now live in closer proximity to, and have more frequent contact with, wildlife, said Dhand.

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There have been at least six large-scale zoonotic disease outbreaks in four decades, including the H1N1 flu, Sars and HIV, collectively resulting in the deaths of millions and impacting the world economy.

But after those outbreaks faded, there has been relatively little effort to prevent the next one.

“We’ve suffered from a siloed approach, historically, and had a big emphasis on responding to health in emergencies but less of an emphasis on preventing those emergencies,” Mark Schipp, president of the World Organisation for Animal Health said. “Diseases in animals spill over into humans on a regular occurrence.”

Zoonotic pathogens that infect humans are only part of the threat. Even if the disease never transfers to a human host, outbreaks of sickness among animal populations impacts food security and international trade.

The 2018 African swine disease outbreak decimated pork supplies, affecting the diets of millions in China, where it is the major source of protein. It also dealt a major economic blow to a myriad of agricultural sectors, including pig farmers.

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“The impact of not controlling non-zoonotic vaccine-preventable disease in animals is much larger than the zoonotic impact, if it’s properly calculated,” said Robyn Alders, senior technical adviser with the Centre for Global Health Security at Chatham House. But data relating to food security “isn’t there to show the true impact on the economy”.

As the coronavirus pandemic starts to come under control in many countries through social distancing measures, there is a chance that public attention may turn elsewhere and governments once again neglect investment in preventive strategies.

“The problem here with animal health is that when that perceived human threat is controlled or significantly reduced, the money dries up,” said Alders.