As of March 19, 2020, the World Health Organization is reporting 207,855 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and close to 9000 deaths globally. Countries around the world have implemented stringent measures to slow transmission of the virus, from social distancing to complete national lockdowns. Globally, people are abstaining from social activities and entertainment, schools have shut down, health systems are struggling to adapt, and businesses have been forced to close, leaving many people abruptly without income. These significant interruptions to everyday life, and their intense social, economic and health consequences, have largely overshadowed the source of this disease. COVID-19, like many pandemics before it, has zoonotic origins. It was transmitted to humans from an animal source. It is not the first zoonotic disease and it certainly won’t be the last — unless we acknowledge and address the root of the problem. Current global efforts to slow the progress of COVID-19 remain incredibly important, but as we emerge from this pandemic, we must endeavour to prevent such diseases from transmitting to humans in the first place.
COVID-19 and the Human-Animal Interface
COVID-19: A New Zoonotic Threat
Now, in the first few months of 2020, we are living through another global pandemic resulting from a zoonotic agent transmitted to humans at the human-animal interface. While the origin has yet to be confirmed, early research indicates that COVID-19 originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, China, where animals are killed on-site for consumption. Given its similarity to many known bat viruses, it appears to have originated in bats and was subsequently transmitted at one of the aforementioned wet markets. Given that bats are not sold at the particular Wuhan market believed to be the origin, it was likely transmitted to an intermediate host. While speculation remains as to its origin of human transmission, its emergence as a human disease is strongly tied to the human-animal interface.Since the virus began to spread throughout mainland China in late December 2019, it has now been detected in over 100 countries worldwide. In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. While critical measures have been implemented to slow the spread, experts predict the situation will continue to worsen before there is improvement. Pandemics are addressed after they have spread globally — the wait and see approach. However, decades have passed since the emergence of HIV without an effective vaccine, suggesting this approach is not effective. We must implement measures to prevent these occurrences, rather than addressing consequences after the crisis hits. Looking forward, it is critical to consider novel methods that will reduce the likelihood of zoonotic disease emergence. One promising method is the production of animal products through cellular agriculture.
Cellular Agriculture: Providing Safe Protein for the Planet
The more we reduce, or at least control, the human-animal interface, the more we decrease the likelihood of future zoonosis.Other factors associated with animal agriculture (particularly intensive farming practices, such as concentrated animal feeding operations) contribute to zoonotic transmission. Deforestation and climate change are thought to have caused the 1998 Nipah viral outbreak in Malaysia, which was transmitted from bats to livestock as the bat population was driven out of their native habitat . In the Congo Basin and Rift Valley, studies have demonstrated that the loss of biodiversity and deforestation have significantly increased the risk of zoonotic transmission to humans . Deforestation is a direct consequence of animal agriculture as more and more farmland is required to grow crops for animal feed. Cellular agriculture reduces deforestation as the production practices are decoupled from land-use.While intensive animal agriculture practices are certainly problematic, it is important to consider the socio-economic factors that influence the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Food insecurity and lack of adequate protein sources, often linked to conflict or poverty, are a common driver of bushmeat hunting [11,12]. As we have seen in many cases, practices like this contribute to disease emergence. Cellular agriculture has immense potential to address food insecurity and provide a more stable and sustainable source of nutrition. With adequate protein sources, we can reduce the need for bushmeat hunting and other practices that leave us susceptible to zoonotic disease emergence.
A New Path Forward
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