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Why Our Best Defence Against Future Pandemics is Data

Scientists in Thailand work to combat zoonotic diseases at their source. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates “intimate” linkages between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems, as zoonotic diseases spread between animals and people, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said February 21. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) via UN News

EDINBURGH, Scotland, May 24 2021 (IPS) - Although the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mission to discover its origins has proven inconclusive, the Covid-19 pandemic has nonetheless clearly highlighted the need for better care, attention, and investment in animal health systems.

Without a decisive change of course to prevent other diseases from jumping the species barrier, we will likely be unable to avoid the pandemics of the future, which could prove even more severe and destructive.

Some 75 per cent of emerging human infections are shared with animals, according to a UN report, and these emerging zoonoses could just as easily spread or mutate to unleash the next pandemic.

Investing in a stronger and more resilient global animal health system is a clear win-win: it protects all people through the prevention, surveillance, diagnosis, and treatment of otherwise dangerous animal diseases – before they cross species and borders.

However, investment alone will not overcome the fact that our current animal health systems are hamstrung by shortcomings in a crucial area: data.

Poor, disparate, under-researched, and inaccurate data on animal health issues prevent officials and authorities in many parts of the world from taking effective interventions against emerging animal diseases. Such limitations endanger both human and animal health, and leave us all vulnerable to the threat of future pandemics.

To improve our current defences against emerging animal diseases, the world needs more focused and directed investment into the systematic collection, organisation, and use of existing animal health data.

Firstly, we need more and better data on animal health. This includes greater surveillance of animal disease on farms, at border crossings and at wet markets, which are all important interfaces through which animal diseases can spread to humans.

Secondly, we must also ensure we make better use of our existing data. For instance, SEBI-Livestock is using advanced informatics to unlock insights from hard-to-reach data about disease prevalence and mortality, and making it more readily available to decision-makers and scientists in the Global South.

Furthermore, a better standard of data-sharing is also necessary in the fight against the future global health threats. Mechanisms and platforms through which doctors and veterinarians, governments and health authorities can share knowledge on emerging diseases and treatments are vital.

One visual tool developed by the Safe Medicines for Animals through regulatory training (SMArt) project helps animal health companies navigate complex regulatory processes, opening the door to improved animal health, and consequently, human health, around the world.

Finally, more investment in helping decision-makers harness this wide range of data for the livestock sector in low-income countries is essential. Low-income countries are disproportionately affected by neglected zoonoses, and the impact of epidemics and pandemics in these regions is exacerbated as a result, as demonstrated by Covid-19.

Providing training sessions in data literacy and data analysis skills, and raising awareness of global animal health resources will be crucial in helping low-income countries leverage valuable data for greater resilience.

Although data by itself is not enough, with more investment we can build up the knowledge and resources we need to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases.

This is why the Action for Animal Health coalition has united groups such as the World Veterinary Association, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Brooke, along with SEBI-Livestock, to call for more support for better, and safer, animal health systems worldwide.

With the knowledge and lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic fresh in our minds, we now stand at an important crossroads.

We can choose to ignore animal health, and continue to endanger human health as a result, or we can begin to properly focus and invest in better animal health systems, using data to guide our interventions.

If we follow this path, we can begin to beat the pandemics of the future before they have even begun.

* Prof. Andy Peters is Program Director, the Centre for Supporting Evidence Based Interventions in Livestock (SEBI-Livestock), at the University of Edinburgh


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