The lead researcher of the Oxford Coronavirus vaccine development team, Sarah Gilbert has warned over the increasing risk of disease outbreaks spreading from animals to humans. As per the expert, human activity is driving the rising threat and such risk factors are unlikely to diminish in the future as globalization continues.
As per the World Health Organization, every year one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths are reported unrelated to zoonotic diseases. Gilbert believes that the spread of zoonotic disease has become more likely because of the human lifestyle, specifically due to the growing population density, increased international travel, and also deforestation.
The Risk Factors
Studies show us that pandemics start with innocuous human activity such as invasion into emerging disease hotspots in forest regions, mainly tropical rain forests that are home to many disease-carrying animals and to eating wildlife.
The origin of the novel Coronavirus, which killed over 840,000 people and affected more than 25 million individuals around the globe, remains a mystery. But many researchers believe that the virus emerged in bats before jumping across to humans via other animals. Other diseases, that have spread across the globe recently, including the West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, have also originated in animals.
In terms of COVID-19, experts speculate that a person from south-west China probably had entered a bat cave to hunt wildlife and sell it in the local wet market and that could have triggered the current pandemic.
In a research paper Dr. Peter Daszak, co-author and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-governmental organization in New York, has noted how deforestation and the wildlife trade trigger pandemic like outbreaks. He said the world needs to remove "viral-risk species from wildlife markets, a crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade and work with communities to find alternatives."
Professor Gilbert said, "Because of the way things have been going in the world, it's more likely we'll have zoonotic infections causing outbreaks in the future."
Gilbert, the professor of vaccinology at Oxford University's Jenner Institute, told The Independent: "Greater population density, greater travel, deforestation – all of these things make it more likely that these outbreaks will happen and then something will spread."
In July, experts from the United Nations warned that the number of zoonotic diseases will continue to increase if action is not taken to protect the wildlife and preserve environment.
A report by the UN's Environment Program and the International Livestock Research Institute said the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans is driven by damaging natural environments that include wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, land degradation, and climate change.
UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen reminded that "the science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead." He also said that pandemics are devastating "and as we have seen over the past months, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most." To prevent future outbreaks, "we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment," he noted.