Guest Blog: How to prevent the next pandemic

Today, as the world continues reeling from a virus that emerged from the brutal treatment of wild animals, I'm passing my blog over to our Animal Welfare Director, Dave Neale, who makes the case for preventing the next pandemic by changing our own consumer habits closer to home.

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We are in the midst of a global health crisis, where Covid-19 has reached all corners of the world and continues to take its devastating toll on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Governments are frantically adopting measures to contain the spread of the virus while all eyes look towards the emergence of the first hopeful signs of a vaccine to protect the most vulnerable within our societies.

But while we are focused on containment, treatment and our future ability to cope with the virus, we are largely ignoring a bigger issue that needs to be addressed to prevent the development of future pandemics.

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Global health crises arise due to our mistreatment of animals for food, whether this be the shameful treatment of wild animals or the equally shameful treatment of farm animals.

While it is true that recent disease outbreaks such as the Cov-19, SARS, MERS and Ebola have arisen from wild animal populations, others such as Avian Flu and Swine Fever have arisen due to our brutal and unethical treatment of animals on a monumental scale as a source of food.

Globally we raise, transport and slaughter over 70 billion land animals each year, the majority of these are crowded inside production units full of their own excrement and urine, presenting the perfect conditions for future viruses to develop.

 Avian influenza is a virus that mainly affects birds, but strains of the virus have also had devastating impacts on humans. Most cases of human bird flu infections have been due to contact with infected poultry or surfaces that are contaminated with infected bird excretions such as saliva, nasal secretions or feces. A 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong led to the first documented cases of human infection with 18 people infected and six deaths. Between 2003 and 2006 a further 9 deaths were recorded globally, and between 2013 and 2019 there have been a further 1,568 confirmed human cases and 616 deaths worldwide from the H7N9 strain of avian flu.

CHICKEN SLAUGHTER TAIWAN

There is clearly a link between the emergence of avian influenza viruses and intensified poultry production systems due to us forcing birds such as chickens and turkeys into smaller and smaller spaces, and producing near genetic clones of one another through decades of artificial selection for traits which include rapid growth, at the expense of the health and welfare of the individual birds. When a virus emerges in such a situation it spreads rapidly as it is met with little resistance. It subsequently becomes highly virulent and possesses a substantial risk if it spills over into the human population.

This is certainly not a problem solely linked to the production of poultry. Pigs are also farmed in deplorable conditions in crowded industrial farms, genetically manipulated and fed growth promoters and antibiotics to force their bodies to grow as large and as quickly as possible to maximise economic benefit at the expense of the rights and the welfare of the individual animals. In 2009/10 this resulted in the swine flu pandemic, a strain of H1N1 resulting from a triple reassortment of bird, swine and human flu viruses further combined with a Eurasian pig flu virus, leading to the term "swine flu". Within a year the virus was linked to over 18,000 deaths worldwide, impacting 180 countries.

FACTORY PIGS

But evidence, if it was indeed needed, of our ability to sleepwalk straight into another global health crisis which has the potential to be far greater than the current one, comes from our inability to address the crisis of antibiotic resistance in human populations that we are all too aware of already but have not yet done what needs to be done to avert it, or at least minimize the chances of its happening.

To produce the sheer volume of animals that are required to feed the world’s appetite for meat products, at ever increasing rates of consumption, we pump animals with antibiotics and growth promoters to prevent them from falling ill and dying before they have grown large enough for us to slaughter and eat or before they have produced enough offspring to make them economically viable. These antibiotic interventions are addressing the symptoms of overcrowding and stress rather than the actual root cause. Animals such as pigs and poultry are fed antibiotics in their feed and water, not to cure disease (therapeutic use) but to suppress infections that are likely to arise in factory farm conditions (non-therapeutic or preventive use). Breeding sows that are not given enough time to recover before being impregnated again, and chickens in crowded cages suffering from heat stress that brings salmonella and E coli, need repeated doses.

This vast use of antibiotics coupled with their overuse in our own populations is leading to antibiotic resistance developing globally in disease-causing bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is where the bacteria that cause infections become resistant to the antibiotics we have developed to prevent them from doing harm. It is a global catastrophe that threatens the lives of millions of people around the world. We are often exposed to bacteria that can be harmful to our health. This could be during medical procedures, from dental work to organ transplantation, cancer therapy to hip or knee replacements. It can also happen when we injure ourselves, even through a simple scratch, or are exposed to a contaminated environment.

As bacteria become increasingly resistant to the effects of antibiotics so the number of deaths will increase because of this. Resistance is a global health disaster that is already killing 700,000 people a year, and it is predicted to cause 10 million deaths per year by 2050 if the current situation is not improved.

Although the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is the major cause of this crisis, public-health experts agree that the over-use and mis-use of antibiotics in intensive animal production is also an important factor – around half of the world’s antibiotic production is used in farm animals.

MEDS

When animals are administered an antibiotic that is closely related to an antibiotic used in human medicine, cross resistance occurs and disease-causing bacteria become resistant to the drug used in human medicine.This bacteria is then transmitted to people in food and then spread by person-to person transmission.

The consensus of the world’s veterinary and medical experts is that it is dangerous and unjustifiable to use antibiotics that are related to drugs of critical importance in human medicine for ‘preventive’ administration to groups of apparently healthy animals.

This usage is thus implicated in the emergence of new forms of multi-resistant bacteria that infect people. These include new strains of multi-resistant foodborne bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. The overuse of antibiotics in intensive pig farming is implicated in the emergence of a new ‘pig’ strain of the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), first identified in 2004-2005 in the Netherlands. This has spread rapidly among pigs in many European countries, to people who are in contact with the animals, and from these people to the community and to hospitals. The livestock-associated MRSA strain has also colonised chickens, dairy cattle and veal calves and the people who handle them and may also be emerging as a food safety risk.

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We are spending all of our time and energy battling with the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on public health systems, grappling with finding a way for us to manage the virus within our communities, and advocating for those that can, to end the trade in wild animals for food. At the same time the very real prospect of evenly deadlier viruses emerging from pig and poultry farms and the spectre of bacterial infections, resistant to the antibiotics we have to keep them at bay, engulfs us.

Yes we must implement social distancing measures, yes we must protect those most vulnerable within our societies, yes we must end the trade in wild animals for consumption and yes we must end the sale of live animals for slaughter in markets around the world. But above all else we must focus attention on the even greater looming health crisis, and tackle the industry that presents an even greater danger to our way of living than any other, an industry that is currently being subsidised to the tune of billions of dollars by the very governments that are supposedly acting in our best interests to protect our health.

We must end the industrial production of animals for food, and so tackle emerging viruses before they have the opportunity to develop and thrive. Only by doing this can we prevent a global health emergency that could seriously overshadow that of Covid-19 developing due to our continued administration of antibiotics to billions of healthy farm animals.

FARM SANCTUARY

To achieve this we must all question our lifestyle choices. We must end our reliance on cheap meat and our support for a political and economic system that rewards agribusiness for mass producing these products, and we must embrace both the plant-based protein alternatives already available and the cellular meat production systems that present the opportunity to produce meat and dairy protein without the need for any animal to be crowded into an industrial warehouse and pumped full of antibiotics to keep it alive long enough for us to slaughter and eat it.

Changing the production and trading of farmed animals is where the focus must be if we are truly serious about preventing future pandemics of global significance rather than simply responding to them as they happen.

Individually, we must stop eating animal products. Collectively, we must insist that public money is no longer used to prop up the factory farming system but is invested in both plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture, expanding scientific research and employment while spurring a transition to animal-free protein and transforming our global food system forever.

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