Much like global warming and climate change, emerging infectious diseases and pandemics are existential threats to our world.
There are large-scale, system-wide changes we need to make as a global community to collectively stop producing so many greenhouse gasses. There are also smaller changes we can make on an individual level, from driving less, flying less, to conserving energy by better insulating our homes.
The same is true for emerging infectious diseases.
We have seen how COVID-19 killed millions, wreaked havoc on businesses and impacted almost all aspects of our lives – and it could have been worse. Compared to viral infections like Ebola and avian influenza, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 was relatively low, although the rate of transmission was relatively high.
To prepare for the next pandemic, we must improve surveillance for viral infections globally to detect new outbreaks early. We must improve our capacity for quickly developing large quantities of safe and effective vaccines and antiviral treatments. We must improve community engagement and be better able to recognize and manage misinformation. We also must address the risks posed by the wildlife trade, crowded live animal markets and the staggering, and ever-increasing, numbers of animals that we intensively breed and confine for food.
A quick recap; in 2003, SARS was linked to exposures to civet cats used for food in southern China. In 2009, H1N1 swine flu was linked to exposures to pigs on large farms in North America. In 2019, COVID-19 was linked to exposures to a market where live animals, like civet cats and raccoon dogs, were being sold as food. And now, H5N1, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), is drawing a lot of attention. It has wreaked havoc on chicken farms and killed millions of wild birds.
H5N1, as an avian influenza virus, is poorly adapted to humans. However, that can change. A few months ago, H5N1 spread from birds into minks confined in a large fur farm in Spain. As the virus spilled over into minks, it mutated and began to spread from mink to mink. Because humans are more closely related to minks in terms of our susceptibility to influenza, this raised the very real possibility that this H5N1 variant could also spillover into humans. Fortunately, all workers on that fur farm were wearing masks, and none of them got sick. We dodged a bullet. People are now increasingly questioning if fur farming is worth the pandemic risks (it’s not).
People are now increasingly questioning if fur farming is worth the pandemic risks (it’s not).
Meanwhile, pig farming, which may play an even larger risk for the next influenza pandemic, is largely flying under the radar. Like minks, pigs are highly susceptible to both avian, other animal and human-adapted influenza viruses, and can be “mixing vessels.” The mixing of viruses is a key factor in influenza pandemics. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic began as a swine influenza virus with portions from avian and human influenza viruses. Unlike the chicken industry which is economically incentivized to screen for influenza given mortality losses, pigs generally don’t get as sick. The pig-farming industry actually may be dis-incentivized to screen for influenza to reduce attention and the potential for bad press. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, testing for influenza on pig farms actually went down compared to pre-pandemic levels.
It can be difficult to change practices. This is as true for the practice of live animal markets and wildlife trade in some parts of the world as it is for mass confinement and eating pigs and chickens in Canada. We readily blame practices in other countries, but willfully disregard the fact that reductions in meat consumption will reduce pandemic risks.
The numbers of pigs and chickens are increasing faster than the numbers of people. Globally, we are now breeding, confining and slaughtering more than 70 billion chickens and 1.5 billion pigs every year. Large modern farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, are increasingly dystopian. And government funds are used to reimburse companies that quickly slaughter millions of animals in response to outbreaks of avian influenza.
Governments and industry will tell us that the risks of influenza are very low, and that pigs and chickens are safe to eat. Yes, an individual is not going to get influenza from eating a cooked chicken or pig. But, eating those animals contributes to the demand and economic incentives for businesses to breed more animals, thereby indirectly increasing the risk for pandemics. It’s largely a numbers game, and the sheer global numbers of animals raised for food presents serious risks.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Some plant-based burgers or sausages are already so good most of us can’t tell them apart from those made from pigs or cows. Those of you in Vancouver who have had the delicious plant-based beef or chicken burgers at Tera V will know what I am talking about.
We don’t just have to be anxious or fearful about the next pandemic. We can push governments for systemic changes and more investments in things like vaccine development and therapeutics. We can also take small, but concrete steps, in our daily food choices – without compromising deliciousness or health – starting with what we eat for dinner tonight.