By Apryle Horbal, Opinion Contributor
Zoonotic viruses, which travel from animal hosts to humans, understandably have captured the public’s attention. While we scramble to understand the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as we think about it in the context of other coronaviruses with zoonotic origins, such as swine flu, our elected leaders must devote time and money not just on vaccine development but on where the next pandemic might originate.
The hunt for the next viral time bomb begins in wildlife habitats, which account for 91 percent of zoonotic disease spread. Detection of novel coronaviruses is key to blocking their journey into the human body. Fortunately, new technology can help science take advantage of the window during which a virus evolves from its original host into the human population — and bypass the politics of governments that might seek to suppress this vital information.
Remote monitoring powered by veterinary telemedicine is being deployed right now in at-risk wildlife regions, allowing technology to assume the risky role of “virus hunter.” Once the domain of veterinarians treating companion animals and livestock, these platforms will allow public health leaders to identify and stop the spread of zoonotic disease while it’s still in the animal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60 percent of infectious diseases in people — and three of four new emerging infectious agents — are spread between animals and people. Fortunately, the spillover point at which animals transmit the virus to humans doesn’t happen overnight; rather, regression models suggest that it takes years. Infected wildlife come into contact with other animal species. Over time, the virus mutates and finds several intermediate animal hosts before it “spills” over to people.
As we’ve seen with Ebola — which is suspected to have wiped out a third of Africa’s western lowland gorilla population in the early 2000s before it reached humans — there is a window of opportunity to curtail disease spread by detecting it in the first affected animals, known as sentinels, prior to a disease finding its way to humans. It’s precisely this point where remote monitoring can provide a critical intervention.
The USAID recently released guidelines for their “STOP Spillover” program, which calls for top ideas on how to monitor high-risk animal-human contact to prevent disease spread in the most zoonotic-plagued regions of Africa and Asia. This program could serve as a key starting point in building out a global zoonotic disease monitoring database — updated and shared in real-time directly with epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts. A globally adopted reporting structure that tracks emerging zoonotic diseases could provide the infrastructure to identify unknown and emerging pathogens early in their lifecycle.
Efforts of this kind are already under way. With the help of The Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, remote care kits have been designed to monitor endangered mountain gorillas in politically unstable regions threatened by disease spread, such as Ebola. Data produced and stored electronically through Bluetooth and video-enabled stethoscopes, electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors and microscopes is transmitted via a telemedicine platform to veterinarians in well-resourced areas through satellite communication. This has provided real-time connectivity for advice on diagnosis, treatment and potential disease management.
An estimated 1 billion cases of human zoonotic disease occur annually, resulting in more than $200 billion in economic losses during the past decade, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments, foundations and private partners must support USAID’s program, along with expanding efforts to prevent zoonotic disease spillover at its many sources. The survival of our species — and the global economy — depends on world leaders looking beyond Band-Aid short-term fixes.
Apryle Horbal is president of VetNow, a veterinary telehealth service, and One Health Solutions. She is a veterinary medical doctor, diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College (Equine Specialty), and member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. She is one of only 20 board-certified equine veterinary dental specialists in the world. Follow her on Twitter @ApryleVetMD.