Can veterinarians save us from the next pandemic?

Can veterinarians save us from the next pandemic?
© Getty Images

What if we told you an early warning of the next pandemic was not in the jungle, but in your living room? 

While scientists are still seeking the origins of the novel coronavirus, there’s little doubt that it came from an infected animal. Three-quarters of all emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning they originate from contact with animals. Our efforts to handle COVID-19 have understandably been human-centric. However, the flip side of preventing pandemics is looking at animals. Yet, the United States does not have a comprehensive animal health surveillance network. That’s a stupefying, critical and ultimately remediable lapse. 

Emerging infectious diseases do not only involve rats, bats, or monkeys overseas. Dogs, cats, zoo animals and local wildlife species have historically been sentinels for biological and chemical threats. During the initial phases of the West Nile Virus outbreak of 1999, wild crows raised the red flag about an impending public health crisis about three months before the first human death, but we missed the warning due to profound weaknesses in wildlife disease surveillance and an inherent species bias. 

ADVERTISEMENT

People assume that all animals fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA, yet the agency oversees agricultural species of economic importance only, such as cows, pigs and chickens. Animals seen by local veterinarians are still not under surveillance, even though the H7N2 flu was discovered among sick cats in a New York City shelter in 2017 and spread to at least one human. 

There is a solution: We can create a public-private, species-neutral biosurveillance partnership — one that would benefit veterinary medicine, public health and would strengthen our nation’s ability to detect biological and chemical threats in crowded urban centers. There is a precedent that worked. 

In 2001, when the Centers for Disease Control recognized that traditional means of surveillance had not been predictive of human risk for West Nile Virus, they utilized veterinary resources to launch a nationwide network. Zoos joined forces to sample and test for West Nile Virus, funneling information to public health departments. These facilities gained access to diagnostic testing and public health authorities gained access to enhanced surveillance capabilities. 

The beauty of the system was that the work was performed entirely by the private sector. There was no need to create a new agency. The federal government did not have to hire more staff, only to cover the cost of the testing itself, which was roughly $470,000. They simply took advantage of what the private sector had to offer: biosurveillance of species that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks of agency mandates. 

We can revive and expand upon this successful model, creating a broad, resilient and sustainable system that would provide the situational awareness needed to detect sporadic and unpredictable health threats. Give veterinarians who work with urban animal sentinels the ability to perform real-time epidemiological surveillance and that information will be there when public health and defense need it. Our estimated startup cost would be $5 million dollars per year over five years, a reasonable investment considering the billions of dollars COVID-19 has already cost the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT

While we protect the U.S., we must continue to invest in animal surveillance in other countries, because a pandemic threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. Evaluations from many low- and middle-income countries, which are already more vulnerable to and less able to contain disease outbreaks, show weak animal surveillance infrastructure. According to the Global Health Security Index, a comprehensive assessment of health security capabilities across 195 countries, fewer than 30 percent of those countries have mechanisms for sharing data among relevant ministries for human, animal and wildlife surveillance, and fewer than 8 percent have a cross-ministerial department, agency or similar unit dedicated to zoonotic diseases.

We can tap into the networks and investments the U.S. has already made through years of international cooperation, but we must make sure to fund fully integrated surveillance. The Global Health Security Agenda, a coalition of 67 countries, works to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats and has done so at a considerable cost. But, most of this funding has gone to public health and little has gone to the veterinary sector. Given that zoonotic threats come from animals, this is difficult to justify and seems short sighted.

The lack of a species-neutral, “one health” approach to bio-surveillance virtually guarantees we will not detect unusual events in sentinel animal species before the disease has already spread into people. Instead, we humans become the sentinels, exposed to lurking unknown threats that won’t be detected until we end up in emergency rooms or the morgue.

Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” If COVID-19 isn’t a wake-up call, what will be? Animal health is human health. We must act now to capture and link health data across species before it is too late.

Dr. Tracey McNamara is a professor of pathology at Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine. She played the catalyst’s role in identifying West Nile Virus in the summer of 1999, working as the lead pathologist at the Bronx Zoo.

Ashley Arabasadi is the senior external affairs manager at Management Sciences for Health, a global nonprofit health advisory organization, and chair emeritus of the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium.