Managing environmental change is key to preventing animal-borne disease outbreaks around the world

By Amy EdwardsFebruary 18th, 2020

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is the latest in a series of diseases transmitted to humans from wild animals in recent years. Fellow diseases including Ebola, SARS, Zika and MERS have also terrorised countries around the world, and their emergence stems from complex interactions among wild and/or domestic animals and humans.
Picture of elderly women with walking frames and masks and gloves on. The women are grocery shopping in Richmond, Virginia. April 2020. Image by Ronnie Pitman/Flickr

Grocery shopping in Richmond, Virginia. April 2020. Image by Ronnie Pitman/Flickr

As the world braces for further cases of novel coronavirus, leading biodiversity, health and agriculture experts have come together with the clear goal that ‘prevention is always better than cure’.

Scientists from the different disciplines within CSIRO, the American-based EcoHealth Alliance, and Sapienza University of Rome in Italy are embarking on new territory where they are encouraging governments and communities world-wide to recognise and address the interactions between environmental change and infectious disease emergence.

This research is outlined in a paper titled Sustainable development must account for pandemic risk, which has been published in the PNAS scientific journal.

The research is focused on preventing the emergence of completely new animal-borne or ‘zoonotic’ diseases, which are transmitted from wild animals to humans, often with a domestic species being the intermediate host.

“Only in the last few years people have become aware of the link between the geographic origin of new zoonotic diseases and the disruption of habitats in areas of high biological diversity,” lead author of the PNAS article and former CSIRO research scientist Dr Moreno Di Marco said.

“Integrated research to address this problem must be prioritised now if we want to prevent, rather than react to, the next dramatic consequence for humanity.”

CSIRO chief research scientist and international biodiversity expert Dr Simon Ferrier observed that biodiversity researchers have long identified and promoted the need to keep biodiversity hotspots intact from a conservation perspective, but this is a different angle altogether.

“This research appeals to a fundamental human imperative to protect ourselves from wildlife-borne diseases and the risk of whole new diseases emerging. Who could argue against that?,” Dr Ferrier said.

While technologies to monitor emerging infectious disease (EID) risk are advancing rapidly, policies to deal with such risk are largely reactive rather than preventive. They focus on outbreak investigation and control, and on development of vaccines and therapeutic drugs targeting known pathogens.

Environmental policies that promote sustainable land-use planning, reduced deforestation, and biodiversity protection, provide ancillary benefits by reducing the types of wildlife contact that can lead to diseases emerging. Pictured are Mountains in the Philippines displaying a patchwork of primary rainforest, secondary forest, paddy fields and heavily logged slopes. Image by Juan Vilata, Shutterstock

What is causing these zoonotic diseases?

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is the latest in a series of diseases transmitted to humans from wild animals in recent years. Fellow diseases including Ebola, SARS, Zika and MERS have also terrorised countries around the world. Around 70 per cent of EIDs, and almost all recent pandemics, originate in animals (the majority in wildlife), and their emergence stems from complex interactions among wild and/or domestic animals and humans.

Professor Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance and co-author of the PNAS article said recent emergences of infectious diseases, including the coronavirus outbreak, were driven by high human population density, environmental changes such as deforestation, intensification of livestock production, and increased hunting and trading of wildlife.

Initial human infections of the new strain of coronavirus were acquired from exposure to animals at a live animal market in Wuhan, China. On 20 January, Chinese authorities confirmed the novel coronavirus was spreading from person-to-person.The current outbreak has caused more than 1700 confirmed deaths with the vast majority of infections and deaths in China. The virus has spread to many countries including Southeast Asia, the USA, Europe, and Australia.

How do we prevent these diseases emerging?

Lead author Dr Moreno Di Marco, who is now based at Sapienza University of Rome, said too little attention had been paid to the interactions between environmental change and infectious disease emergence, despite growing scientific evidence that causally links these two phenomena.

“Efforts to reduce pandemic risk involve trade-offs with other societal goals, such as food and energy production, which ultimately rely on the same environmental resources. Those links cannot be ignored,” he said.

Dr Di Marco believes the current lack of focus on these interactions generates policy blind spots that must be addressed to ensure sustainable development efforts are not counterproductive and do not compromise global health security.

Veterinarian Hasan Alkaf, takes samples from a camel during the first reported (Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) case in Haramout, Yemen in April 2014. Image, Flickr.

Changing the way we do things when it comes to development in high risk countries

The research by Dr Di Marco and colleagues claims that without addressing the disease emergence consequences of environmental change, countries’ abilities to achieve Sustained Development Goals and Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) will be compromised.

Dr Mario Herrero, another CSIRO chief research scientist, said research on the interaction between sustainable development goals has typically focused on a small number of well-established links, for example between food production and biodiversity conservation, or food production and carbon emissions. “These works ignore the role that pandemic risk plays in human health,” he said.

For example, cropland is projected to expand with increasing food demand, particularly in developing countries with high biodiversity and Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) risk.

Environmental policies that promote sustainable land-use planning, reduced deforestation, and biodiversity protection, provide ancillary benefits by reducing the types of wildlife contact that can lead to disease emergence.

Tropical regions have more extensive areas of predicted EID occurrence.

Northern Australia is at increased risk of infectious diseases found in South East Asia because of its close proximity to Asia, potentially providing a gateway to the rest of Australia.

Australia’s susceptibility is also increased because of global mobility, growing trade, increased urbanisation leading to human encroachment into wildlife habitats, expanding agricultural development including the rise of peri-urban farming, as well as environmental and land use changes.

The best minds are now working together to prevent infectious disease outbreaks

Currently, 65 countries including Australia are engaged in the Global Health Security Agenda and are finalising a strategic plan to better prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

CSIRO and the EcoHealth Alliance have also formed a partnership to advance global prediction of disease emergence risk.

The partnership combines world-leading capability in biodiversity modelling, disease surveillance, livestock system modelling and builds on decades of applied research and disease risk.

“We’ve each been separately studying biodiversity, disease emergence, and agricultural production for decades but the idea of all these different disciplines joining forces is new ground for us,” Dr Ferrier said.

“We’ve now got these different disciplines talking to each other to help inform achievement of positive outcomes globally in terms of achieving sustainable development goals.”

The partnership’s goals include identifying areas at higher risk of zoonotic disease emergence, having adequate surveillance programs in these areas and mitigating risk through management strategies such as education and vaccination. And overall, the disease risk must then be taken into account when considering sustainable development.

Dr Di Marco concludes that we must ensure that pandemic risk mitigation becomes an integral part of sustainable socio-economic planning.

15 comments

  1. Let’s all hope you are listened to, and let’s hope CSIRO gets adequate government funding for its work.

    1. Amen to that. But I doubt it will happen under current political conditions.

  2. Excellent article. Feel proud to forward on.

  3. Could we please have your permission to publish in our magazine the key paragraphs in the above article re the connection between COVID19 and the reasons why such diseases developed into humans.
    We are the Natural Health Society of Australia, a not-for-profit member organisation that was founded 60 years ago in 1960. We have 1,000 members.

  4. All well and good but the fact that some eat wild, sometimes endangered,animals is surely more cultural than environmental, but addressing this might be considered politically incorrect and would no doubt attract less funding

  5. This article makes some very important points and is spot-on about the link between zoonotic diseases and the environment. But the relationship is actually a tripartite one, which also includes veterinary diseases. This is why WHO and OIE – the World Organisation for Animal Health have partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, to launch a One Health initiative, encompassing all three elements. CSIRO is well placed to drive this within Australia. CSIROs scientists at its facilities, the Australian Animal Health Laboratory and Manufacturing at Clayton, will play a key role, both in Australia’s response to COVID-19 and in preventing future pandemics. A more holistic approach, incorporating the environment into the conversation, is long overdue. Link at https://www.oie.int/fileadmin/Home/eng/Media_Center/docs/EN_TripartiteZoonosesGuide_webversion.pdf

  6. Excellent article on a topic not well understood, there are consequences for unchecked/inappropriate development. Well done CSIRO!

  7. The research is perhaps telling us that we have pushed the planet to a point of wanting to fight back against human over-development. Good luck with getting support for this research CSIRO.

  8. Another exceptionally good reason to introduce stricter human land use regulations and compliance, as well as deterrence for poor treatment of wildlife – world wide!

  9. Contemporary environmental pressures may well have intensified the problem of animal derived disease but the flow of pathogens from Asia has a much longer history. For example, there has been considerable research to show that the Roman Empire was adversely affected, perhaps fatally, by a variety epidemics, plagues and diseases which arose from trade and war to the East and which continued through the Middle Ages into modern times. Agricultural, social and cultural practices seems to be the issue rather than emviromental pressures.

  10. Excellent article!
    One aspect that I would be interested in reading more about is the effect that the loss of biodiversity can have on our own immune systems’ ability to adapt to new pathogens. For instance, in environmental literature, there is a belief that when an ecosystem is depleted, it can impact on the ability of the remaining inhabitants to detect and combat pathogens.

  11. Informative

  12. What exactly are “the types of wildlife contact that can lead to disease emergence?” This is still not clear to me after having read this article.

  13. Finally, we have scientific recognition of the price of human greed and failure to respect the holistic inter- connections in the balance of life for all creatures. This should be publicised to the public and the governments educated.

  14. For most people in the world, if you don’t work you don’t eat. Covid 19 is something they cannot see. The west chopped most of its tree’s down and ate most of it’s wild animals hundred’s if not thousands of years ago. Until refrigeration, only 150 years ago, most meat were sold through wet markets. Much as I agree with the sentiments and research, as from a personnel point of view gone through two outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in the UK. I feel there is a lot of hypocrisy, that may not be intended. But a lot of scientist’s and commentators don’t live in a world of surviving day to day. Until that is addressed, people will eat whatever is to hand. The reality is that zoonotic diseases, are the result of the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
    My background is dairy farming in England and then Australia. Most of Dairy Australia’s bio security dvd was shot on my farm, if you want to know what I do, search the link. My two daughter’s have just started to train to be doctor’s, so they will be in the front line in the not too distant future.

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