18 May 2022

We must include animal health in conversations around pandemic prevention

In his new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, Bill Gates misses a crucial piece of the puzzle; animal health systems. Ellie Parravani, from Brooke's External Affairs team, discusses why animal health should have been included.

A vet treats a donkey at a brick kiln in Pakistan. Credit Ahmad Chaudhry.

With the recent release of Bill Gates’s new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, I was excited to see conversations around health systems and pandemic prevention return to the mainstream. However, the book misses a crucial piece of the puzzle – the importance of strengthening animal health systems.

Animals and humans are living closer together than ever - and our health is connected.

An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and up to 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals.

An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and up to 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals. The way that we exploit nature and how we treat animals means that diseases are emerging more frequently from animals and spilling over into people.

Poor animal care and unsustainable farming practices contribute not only to zoonotic disease risk (diseases that pass from animals to humans), but also to the silent pandemic of antimicrobial resistance.

It works the other way too. People can pass some zoonotic diseases back to animals, creating new disease reservoirs – and in turn they pass it back to us again.

I read the book in two days flat, scouring every page for a mention of the need to protect the health of animals. The book rightly acknowledged that we should continue to study how viruses evolve in animals and which may cross over to humans. But that was as far as it went.

We must work together to lower the risk of spillover in the first place to prevent another pandemic. One of the central themes of the book was to create a global pandemic prevention team and spot outbreaks early. Such a team should include the animal health workforce who would be the first to spot diseases with spillover potential in wildlife and domestic animals. They need access to good quality animal medicines and vaccines to prevent our animals from getting sick.

Taking better care of animals may even help to protect our ecosystems. Reducing death and disease in animals farmed for food means we may need to rear fewer animals for the same output, and use fewer natural resources as a result. By reducing the amount of land we use for farming, we could support efforts to stop deforestation and limit wild animals passing disease on to livestock – and vice versa.

In many ways, Bill Gates knows the importance of animal health. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds a huge amount of vital work to improve animal health and recognises the importance of animal health to achieving the sustainable development goals. Healthy animals help reduce poverty and provide food security for billions of people.

But animal health is important to secure global health too. We need to change our relationship with animals - and, whilst all eyes are on how we prevent the next pandemic, it’s crucial that powerful people like Bill Gates bang the One Health drum and champion the need to secure the health of people, animals and our planet.