A year ago, I would have never taken someone seriously if they said a worldwide pandemic was coming our way. My friends and family say the same – whether it be my 13-year-old niece, my 25-year-old brother or my friend’s 85-year-old grandfather, they all agree that most people never saw COVID-19 on the horizon.
Despite age, location or circumstance, we are unified in similar disbelief and instability – a sentiment likely shared by most in the U.S., if not across the world.
However, our Charity Alliance partner EcoHealth Alliance would say differently.
Why? Because pandemic preparation is the central pillar of their organization. They are constantly considering strategies and responses to pandemic-potential pathogens like the virus that causes COVID-19 – and, as a result, they have some useful information to share with us.
EcoHealth Alliance is a nonprofit dedicated to creating science-based solutions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation. The charity dedicates time, money and energy toward pandemic prevention, an area of focus that has never before seemed so important and integral to the world and our communities.
Robert Kessler, communications manager for EcoHealth Alliance, explains that there are 219 virus species known to infect humans. This seems like a high number, but what’s more troubling is the millions of viruses that are still unknown. There are roughly 1.67 million viruses out there in the world, and EcoHealth Alliance estimates that, of those, 800,000 could infect humans.
“So the overwhelming majority of potential pandemic threats are completely unknown to us and could each affect our way of life just as deeply as SARS-CoV-2 has,” explains Kessler.
Last year, these numbers didn’t mean much to many of us outside of the field of global health. Now, they have become part of our reality. Join us in taking a closer look at EcoHealth Alliance’s 45 years of research – and inside the frontlines of the battle to beat current and future pandemics.
Understanding zoonotic disease
One key focus of EcoHealth Alliance’s work is to discover, analyze and fight emerging infectious diseases (EIDs).
EIDs come in many forms, one of which is zoonotic. Transmitted between wild or domestic animals and humans, zoonotic diseases account for 75% of the newly emerging diseases affecting people around the world. As populations increase and the global human footprint grows larger, close contact between humans and wildlife occurs more and more frequently. As a result, the potential for the transmission of a highly infectious zoonotic disease is on the rise. Recognizing this risk, EcoHealth Alliance has made the study of zoonotic disease a top priority.
Zoonotic disease may sound like a foreign term to you, but you’re already very familiar with at least one – COVID-19.
The importance of location
The coronavirus pandemic likely began with contact between human populations and horseshoe bats somewhere in China, with the first cluster of cases in Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei Province. Human-animal interaction is often an unintended side effect of common practices like urbanization, deforestation, or increased agricultural production.
Through predictive mapping, Asia and Southeast Asia have both been identified as potential hotspots – in part due to their role in the global trade of wildlife and markets where the sale of many different species of live animals lead to higher levels of crossover between animal and human populations.
EcoHealth Alliance focuses their efforts on these key locations, building local capacity in order to better test geographic and taxonomic samples across different countries.
The charity’s process is straightforward: staff locate and test wildlife in several countries from West Africa, through West Asia, into Southeast Asia. They collect samples from local animals, test them for a wide spectrum of viruses and share those findings in a worldwide database. This process allows collaborators from various fields – mathematicians, genetic specialists, etc. – to work through this information in order to best predict dangerous diseases and high-risk populations.
The role of partnerships
Staying ahead of the next global pandemic isn’t something that can be accomplished by one organization alone. EcoHealth Alliance knows that cooperation and partnership make up the foundation of global health and disease prevention. Only through working together and sharing information can we better our understanding of EIDs, so the charity partners with government agencies, universities and independent laboratories around the world to ensure optimal prevention.
However, perhaps the most important partnerships aren’t at the international level, but at a smaller scale – EcoHealth Alliance works with local partners through programs like EID-SEARCH, which showcases both their strengths in local research capacities and their ability to link local infectious disease scientists with an international collaborative network.
This network acts as an early warning system for novel EIDs so the world will be prepared for a potential outbreak or pandemic – and possibly help global health leaders prevent other diseases escalating to the same dimension as COVID-19.
Putting strategy into practice: Nipah Virus
Nipah virus is a little-known virus that was only first described in 1999. While it’s nowhere near as well-known as other zoonoses like Ebola or Zika, regular outbreaks in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India have an average mortality rate of nearly 80 %. EcoHealth Alliance’s study helped to identify the source of many outbreaks, at least in specific regions: Raw date palm sap harvested for consumption is collected through tapping the palm tree and allowing it to collect in a bucket. These buckets of sap are also an ideal food source for fruit bats which allows the virus to travel from the mouths of bats to humans. An intervention as simple as lids on those pots can be enough to prevent outbreaks.
Understanding the reservoir species for this virus – fruit bats – as well as their geographic location and flight patterns can help to develop mathematical models to predict future outbreaks and to prepare for and prevent them before people start getting sick.
The economics of a pandemic
The economics behind pandemic prevention can be exasperating. The issue for many of those involved in the prediction and prevention work is the lack of funding for research when there is not a disease threatening us directly and in real-time. After months of instability, I can confidently say that it is worth the investment to prevent the next pandemic.
Robert Kessler and his colleagues at EcoHealth Alliance feel the same: “if this moment has taught us anything, I would hope that one of those lessons is that we must take a more proactive approach to pandemics.”
Emerging diseases, as we have seen through the eventful and tumultuous year of 2020, can have resounding economic effects ranging from reduction in labor forces, high levels of unemployment, isolation and deep cuts and losses in industries across the board. Therefore, it is important to run the cost/benefit analysis of funding programs focused on pandemic prevention, so we do not have to re-live our experiences.
When considering whether it’s worth it to support the prevention of future pandemics, consider some of the worldwide repercussions of COVID-19 that we are currently living through: Food insecurity is rising; more people are experiencing homelessness; and children’s right to education is in jeopardy. Additionally, pre-existing divisions and inequalities have been exacerbated, and marginalized communities are at an even larger risk than ever before.
All areas of life are affected by the spread and destruction of COVID-19, and we must be aware and active in preventing from this occurring again.
Taking action to prevent future pandemics
Infectious disease is the number one killer worldwide with up to 15 million people succumbing to different infectious diseases each year. However, the majority of people do not pay any attention to EIDs until one erupts into an outbreak and fatalities rise. We need to change that.
“When it comes to infectious disease, we wait until people start getting sick before we develop treatments, vaccines or even tests to identify the virus responsible. Why is that? It doesn’t have to be that way. We know that prevention works,” Kessler said.
There is work that everyone can do to prevent the next pandemic.
People practice preventative measures for conditions such as heart disease by eating healthy, balanced diets and exercising. Day-to-day habits can be adapted for pandemic prevention, too. Infectious diseases are varied and vast, but there are actionable steps on both micro- and macro-levels that we can take in conjunction with EcoHealth Alliance and their partners. Here are just a few of the ways you can get involved – both at home and in the office!
- Tried and true, wearing a mask is a critical way of reducing the transmission of diseases, not just COVID-19.
- Stay home if you are sick or are experiencing any symptoms and listen to experts as more information becomes available.
- Continue to educate yourself on infectious disease and its changing landscape.
- Coronavirus Explained. EcoHealth Alliance president Dr. Peter Daszak was featured alongside Bill Gates (Co-founder, Microsoft Corporation), Maryn McKenna (independent journalist, global and public health) and Joel Montgomery (chief of the viral special pathogens branch, Centers for Disease Control) on the Netflix series, Coronavirus Explained. This miniseries currently has three episodes and delves into the nature of infectious disease and the current strain of SARS affecting the world right now.
One major way to help is by supporting EcoHealth Alliance through your workplace giving campaign. You can drum up interest for the campaign by showing the Netflix series Coronavirus Explained – then encourage your employees to ask questions! You can also consider inviting EcoHealth Alliance to a virtual lunch and learn. This is also a valuable opportunity to strengthen the bonds between your employees, so don’t miss out – ask us how to get involved with EcoHealth Alliance today.
We are encountering new obstacles, new decisions and new realities that we never once believed that we would have to face. In this time, it is important to look to organizations such as EcoHealth Alliance and support their preventative work. We have seen the damage and repercussions of epidemics and pandemics, and it is our responsibility to work to prevent them and support organizations committed to this lifesaving work. Take action and join the global collective of people and organizations looking to prevent the next pandemic.