The coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), continues to spread globally, infecting over 114 million people. The virus first emerged in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, from a potential animal host.
Zoonotic diseases have caused outbreaks throughout history, claiming millions of lives. These diseases occur when pathogens from animals jump to humans and cause illness.
Now, researchers at the University of Silesia in Katowice and the Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland recommend measures to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks. They emphasized the importance of viral surveillance and research on new viral strains as primary strategies to combat these infections.
The coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic first emerged in Wuhan City, China in December 2019. Since then, it has spread to 192 counties and regions. It has caused a significant burden to healthcare systems, the economy, and public fears.
The pandemic served as a lesson and call-to-action for many countries and health agencies to minimize the risk of future viral pandemics. Acting early when an outbreak surface is crucial to reduce the negative impact of the illness.
Zoonotic viral infections
Zoonotic viral infections represent a critical global health issue. Due to various reservoirs and vectors, it is challenging to track transmission dynamics and impose control and preventive measures.
Throughout history, some of the worse outbreaks the world has experienced were diseases that came from animals. These include the H1N1 swine flu, bubonic plaque, coronavirus outbreaks like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and the current COVID-19, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, among others.
The spillover of viruses and pathogens from animals to humans and from human to human is extremely rare. However, spillover events can occur and cause widespread infections.
The current study, published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, highlights several directions through which the transmission and spread of pathogens from animals to humans can be prevented or mitigated.
Further, the study elaborated on the role of surveillance systems. It also explains the importance of identifying viral pathogens in animals, reducing ferret farming, changes to wild trade regulations, modifications to the meat production process, and limitations to hunting activities.
The study explains how monitoring and identifying novel viral agents can help reduce outbreaks in the future. Surveillance of viral groups tied to animal hosts is essential in understanding current and future epidemiological risks.
Past studies point to the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2, with bats being the primary reservoir for its lineage. From bats, scientists believe the virus jumped to an intermediate host before infecting humans. The intermediate host speculated to have transmitted the virus to people in the seafood market in Wuhan City was a pangolin.
In previous coronavirus outbreaks, like SARS and MERS, the intermediate hosts were noted to be civet cats and camels, respectively. Considering this, there is an urgent need to continue to screen the bat-associated coronaviruses, identify hotspots, isolate particular strains, and evaluate their potential for cross-species transmission. All these will help prevent another outbreak in the future, which may evolve into a pandemic.
The study also highlights the importance of limiting wildlife trade to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks. Today, the international trade of wild animals is currently regulated, wherein countries can implement provisions. However, due to the illegal wildlife trade, the risk of another pandemic is possible.
Hence, limiting or banning wildlife trade is essential. Countries can also regulate illegal trades happening in their territories to protect not only animals but also people.
The study also discussed mink farming as a potential source of zoonotic diseases. It is known that species from the Mustelidae family are vulnerable to the infection of beta-coronaviruses. Ferrets are usually used as animal models for coronavirus studies.
Meanwhile, the American mink is also susceptible to some coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-2. Today, the highest production of mink is Denmark, China, the Netherlands, Russia, and the United States.
Though the worldwide resignation from mink farming is unlikely in the future, some areas have noted its decline. Such decisions will have a positive ecological impact since mink production has been tied to increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, eutrophication, and water consumption.
Other factors that may drive future outbreaks include meat production and hunting activities. Changing practices and regulating these activities can reduce the risk of future coronavirus outbreaks.
“The present paper considers different strategies, the implementation of which would not only be beneficial from a healthcare point of view but in selected cases could also have positive socio-economic, ethical, and environmental outcomes,” the researchers concluded in the study.