What's the next zoonotic pandemic that will affect global food safety and security?

Almost all recent pandemics originate in animals and nearly half of those are directly linked to global environmental degradation. More robust agriculture and food production systems must be in place to survive the next pandemic and economic down turn.

Image of deforestation.
Photo Credit: Dirk van der Made | WikiMedia Commons

Scott Haskell teaches the online course “Animal Health, World Trade, and Food Safety” for Michigan State University’s Institute for Food Laws and Regulations. The course is offered each year in the fall semester.

 The United Nations (UN) is warning of an expanding global food insecurity crisis as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the UN estimates 265 million people worldwide could face "acute food shortages" by the end of the year 2020.

In understanding this disease process, two terms are important for our discussion: pandemic and zoonosis (zoonotic). A pandemic is simply a significant global outbreak of disease. Generally, pandemics occur when a new bacteria or virus emerges to infect humans/animals and can spread between people/animals sustainably. A zoonosis is a disease or infection that is transmissible from animals to humans under natural conditions.

Historically, emerging or re-emerging global infectious disease pandemics, on average occur every 10-20 years. However, the frequency between pandemics has been shortening. Due to environmental and climate changes, population growth (global population expected to reach as much as 13 billion by 2050), increased poverty and economic instability, habitat destruction and dwindling natural resources, the likelihood of another pandemic is increasing. Climate change is driving different ecological interactions leading to increased shared zoonotic disease. We live in a global community.

So, what are the likely infective agents to cause future pandemics and where will they originate? Most recent emerged infectious diseases originated in animals prior to humans. Zoonosis from wildlife represents the most significant global health threat of our times. It is estimated that around 70% of all emerging infectious diseases and almost all recent pandemics originate in animals (zoonotic disease) and nearly half of those are directly linked to global environmental degradation. This degradation is caused primarily by agricultural expansion and deforestation. 

New zoonotic pathogens originating primarily in wildlife are rapidly developing disease potential in Asia, Africa and South America. Additionally, exotic diseases such as foot and mouth disease, avian flu (zoonotic), swine fever and exotic Newcastle’s disease pose a separate but substantial challenge to global agricultural shutdowns.

Many global zoonoses can be traced to inappropriate land use changes that affect biodiversity of a forest environment. Relations between animal hosts, human populations, pathogens and the environment affect what is called the ‘epidemiological triad’. Large-scale changes in land use modulates vector dynamics, shifts environmental vegetation patterns and distorts human-animal interfaces. All of these changes may occur, affecting the distribution and a dose-dependent potential for disease.

Developing strategies to mitigate, detect, prevent, and respond to zoonotic diseases is extremely important in the prevention of the next pandemic. But this can be extremely challenging in resource-poor nations. Effective planning and mitigation of zoonotic disease impacts will require global collaborations on a multisectoral basis with interdisciplinary partnerships. These strategies all take time.  The development of the PREDICT Program from the University of California, Davis and Dr. Jonna Mazet was accomplishing this but funding was cut in 2019. Multisectoral partnerships were created with national participants from multiple health and agricultural specialties. These specialties emphasized the epidemiologic triad including human, animal (domestic and wildlife), and environmental health. They prioritized zoonotic diseases evaluating through disease modeling. Engagement within different planetary health sectors early in the process facilitates collaboration during program implementation and ensures program ownership. In addition, systems developed to address the prioritized diseases can be leveraged to tackle other zoonotic infections and emerging health threats. These early detection and prevention structures must be in position prior to a disease outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic occurring. This will require having a well planned and effective, coordinated human and animal-health response in place. As is currently seen with COVID-19, countries that lack a well-functioning multi-phasic disease detection and mitigation mechanism could fail to rapidly detect disease. This could lead to a poor and slow response to emerging health threats. Finally, potential zoonotic diseases could spread to other countries and threaten global health security (as with COVID-19).

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis of 2020 and beyond, we can begin to build the domestic and global economy through stimulus packages and appropriate planning. This is our time to redesign domestic and global food systems. Our planning would mitigate and decrease the severity of future catastrophic events and their impacts on human health, agriculture, food systems and the global economy.

Global emergencies are devastating. As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, there will be a substantial strain on the global food supply: food insecurity will increase in every nation. We must immediately start developing new and resilient mechanisms through which the entire global agriculture and food production system can evolve. Utilizing new and innovative changes while incentivizing the development of technologies and innovation will lead to increased productivity. We can make these changes now. More robust agriculture and food production systems must be in place to survive the next pandemic and economic down turn.

Learn more about the international food supply with online graduate courses designed for food industry professionals.

These courses with MSU’s Institute for Food Laws and Regulations may be of particular interest:


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