This blog comes to you amid great global uncertainty.
The pandemic scenario now unfolding is one partners in the One Health Poultry Hub have long feared. You didn’t need a crystal ball to have anticipated the crisis now engulfing the world, but as infectious disease experts we knew well the risks – and that the odds of getting through our five years of Hub research without a major zoonotic disease outbreak were slim.
That is not to say that we know what will happen tomorrow, let alone next week or next year – but like others working in the field of infectious diseases, and in particular those with their origins in animal-to-human transmission, we were aware of the dangers.
From avian influenza to SARS to swine flu to MERS to Ebola, the past decade has witnessed one zoonotic disease outbreak after another. There is nothing new about zoonotic disease, or even pandemics. However, the rapid speed of pathogen spread is a modern phenomenon.
Our world is one of international travel, globalisation of trade, untrammelled urbanisation, population explosion, agricultural intensification and ecosystem destruction – all factors that greatly increase the risk for both the emergence and the rapid spread of zoonotic pathogens. These pathogens include those known to us already, such as avian influenza viruses which particularly interest us in this Hub, and worrisome novel ones, such as COVID-19.
Fortunately, our world is also one of incredible human ingenuity, scientific breakthrough, rapid knowledge spread and, not to be underestimated, a fierce determination to find solutions to intractable challenges.
Our Hub comprises some of the world’s leading experts in global health security, zoonotic disease surveillance, and outbreak response. While today’s crisis does not have its roots in a pathogen from chickens, in Asia or anywhere else, the experience, knowledge and skills that lie with our Hub experts are directly relevant to our understanding of today’s crisis and – perhaps more immediately pressing – our response to it.
We can and will contribute to the practical thinking and discussions on how we move forward, helping to guide the world’s recovery from this outbreak and learning lessons from it. Already, contributions from Hub partners are much in evidence.
Professor David Heymann, from Chatham House and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who headed the World Health Organization (WHO) response to the SARS epidemic, is once again advising WHO.
Professor Oliver Pybus, of the University of Oxford and the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), London, is part of the UK rapid-response team for coronavirus genomics. His group in Oxford are supporting teams in Beijing and Guandong province, China, to understand the impact of the interventions undertaken there, and they have also led the establishment of global epidemiological database.
Dr Hayley MacGregor of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, has contributed to WHO discussions on the importance of integrating social sciences into the COVID-19 response.
Hub partners in study countries are working on responses to COVID-19. In Vietnam, the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology has main responsibility for controlling the outbreak and Dr Nguyen Le Khanh Hang is the leading expert on testing and isolating coronavirus in the country. In Bangladesh, Professor Meerjady Sabrina Flora, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research in Dhaka, is leading and coordinating, the country’s COVID-19 response and conducting daily press briefings on the crisis (pictured, below).
Professor Dirk Pfeiffer, of Hong Kong City University and Dr Guillaume Fournié from RVC are working on a version of their open-access Epidemix App, with a model and parameter sets adapted to COVID-19. This tool will help people to visually explore trends in time and space relating to the disease’s transmission.
Professor Pfeiffer is also a member of a World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Advisory Group on COVID-19 which produced a document that presents the current knowledge on the role of animals in the emergence of the coronavirus and identifies research priorities at the human-animal interface.
This breadth of Hub expertise now focused on the COVID-19 response exemplifies our One Health approach. This approach to zoonotic disease takes as its premise the interconnectedness of animal, human and environmental health, and so the need for working across disciplines and sectors – from community engagement to virus hunting.
The One Health Poultry Hub has entrusted in it £18.2m of UK Government funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), via the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), for interdisciplinary, cross-sector work as it relates to the need for sustainable poultry production in South and Southeast Asia. It is way too early days for us to know how the current crisis will affect our Hub, but with international travel becoming untenable and even travel within countries expected to be limited, the likelihood of us meeting our fieldwork schedules are diminishing.
Amid the uncertainties though, there are some certainties. One is that to talk of ‘foreign viruses’ is not only wrong-headed, it is extraordinarily unhelpful. Viruses, as we all know, do not respect borders. It is only through international cooperation, such as that exemplified by the GCRF, that we can move forward.
Another certainty is that we will continue to apply our expertise to the zoonotic disease crisis we are now in the midst of, from taking lessons learned from past outbreaks to focused new research, from practical ideas for interventions to contributing thought pieces to this blog and elsewhere.
In some senses, that the danger this time around has come from wild animals sold in a wet market in China rather than chickens in a live bird market in Asia is academic. What’s needed now is a truly One Health response from all experts everywhere, and we will be among them.