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Strengthening Defenses Against Zoonotic Disease Amid Covid-19

Scientists have been studying zoonotic diseases for decades, trying to understand when, where and why pathogens jump from animals to humans.

It’s critical work as zoonoses account for 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, the vast majority of these coming from wildlife. Covid-19 is no different as researchers currently believe the disease originated in bats.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on zoonoses and how animal, environmental and human health scientists are working together to understand Covid-19, discover a vaccine and predict future outbreaks.


One of the most difficult aspects of predicting the next outbreak is that they emerge in wildlife first. Scientists across the world are building a picture of how environmental changes, differences in weather and human interaction can increase the likelihood of zoonoses spilling over from animals to humans.

The Versatile Emerging infectious disease Observatory is a European project that helps to predict emerging zoonotic diseases by examining the drivers of each emerging disease scenario and then layering data to find converging risk factors. By rethinking disease detection models it buys more time to get the resources in place to test animals and people, and to start vaccine development.

The observatory has been helping to understand how the novel coronavirus is spreading, using digital epidemiologists to track reports of the virus on Twitter feeds and news networks. At the same time it is trying to predict the next outbreak. Nipah virus, which can pass to humans from infected pigs, is of particular concern.


Biosecurity is fundamental in stopping the spread of diseases across livestock and people. It’s adoption in major markets is a primary reason livestock rearing and food production can maintain such high levels of safety.

Biosecurity relies on principles like quarantine and rigorous hygiene that people are now adopting in response to Covid-19. For example, when a veterinarian visits a large farm they are often required to wear personal protective equipment like facemasks and scrubs. In some cases, they may even be asked to quarantine themselves before the visit.

These actions significantly reduce the risk of a veterinarian carrying an illness onto the farm and causing an outbreak amongst animals. It ensures animals remain healthy and our food is safe.

Vaccine development

Animal vaccines are vital to protect their health and they also act as a first line of defence for human health to stop the spread of zoonoses. The Pirbright Institute is developing several vaccines for zoonotic diseases, including jabs to protect pigs from Nipah. It is conducting trials to understand a new solution for Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic fever and it is developing a new universal vaccine to protect against all strains of the influenza virus. Due to its unique expertise in animal immunology, Pirbright is ideally placed to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, currently working with the University of Oxford and Public Health England.

Meanwhile, a public-private taskforce, called the Zoonoses Anticipation and Preparedness Initiative (ZAPI), has been working for the last five years to help speed up vaccine development specifically for zoonotic diseases.

Modelling the solution on three test viruses – Rift Valley Fever, Schmallenberg and MERS – the team has created a pipeline of technologies that it claims can create a remedy for almost any newly emerging virus.

So far, the team has produced antibodies for all three test diseases and after receiving further funding under an emergency call for Covid-19-related research proposals, it may have treatments ready for safety trials on Covid-19 patients by the end of the year.

People across the world are working together to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. This One Health effort is outstanding and highlights the need for greater global co-ordination as the growing human population, climate change and change in land use could mean zoonotic outbreaks are more common in future.