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What Bill Gates needs to know about preventing the next pandemic

Ellie Parravani explains why the connected health of people, animals and the wider environment is the key to preventing the next pandemic.

| 6 min read

With the recent release of Bill Gates’s new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, I was excited to see how he was going to tackle the big issue of One Health. One Health is a concept that recognises that the health of people, animals and the wider environment are deeply connected.

But I was left disappointed. The book misses this crucial piece of the puzzle. There was no mention of animal health and not enough about the need to protect the environment around us.

An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and up to 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals. Swine flu, monkeypox, bird flu, Ebola, and COVID-19 - are all diseases that came from animals and jump into human populations.

Preventing pandemics - it starts with nature

The way that we exploit nature and how we treat animals means that infectious diseases are emerging more frequently. Rapid urbanisation, population growth, and our increasing demand for food from animals mean we are encroaching on the habitats of wildlife. Changes in the way we live and the way we move around the planet mean that the potential for disease to spread is much bigger than ever before.

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.

So, what are governments doing to prevent future pandemics? An international agreement is being drafted that will inform global efforts to respond to and stop pandemics. I coordinate the Action for Animal Health coalition, which has been working hard to make sure this agreement really focuses on prevention. For us, this means protecting animal health and our planet to stop infectious diseases from jumping from animals to people.

Gates sees prevention as containing outbreaks of the disease once they are already in the human population.

This is very different to Bill Gates’s definition of prevention. He sees prevention as containing outbreaks of the disease once they are already in the human population. One of the central themes of the book was to create a ‘global pandemic prevention’ team that could spot outbreaks early before they spread.

But this approach alone would be riskier – and potentially more costly - than preventing spillover from animals to people in the first place. And it would have no benefit to animals themselves, nor to our environment. Some campaigners state that preventing spillover – through measures like protecting tropical forests and improving how we care for domestic animals - would cost just 1% of what the United States has spent on responding to COVID-19 so far.

Antimicrobial resistance

Protecting animal health would also go some way to halt antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR is known as the ‘silent pandemic’. Already, at least 700,000 people die each year from diseases that have become resistant to antibiotics.

Poor training and barriers to accessing medicines and vaccines for animal health professionals can lead to the excessive and inaccurate use of antimicrobials, like antibiotics. This can contribute to AMR and poses a risk to the health of humans and animals alike, as well as a threat to the environment. If overused, antibiotics are no longer effective and fail to treat disease in humans and animals. Their excessive use can also lead to contamination of water or soil.

Upskilling the animal health workforce, and providing them with good quality medicines and vaccines, will also contribute to preventing future pandemics.

Healthy animals, healthy people

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 domestic animals.

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 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Healthy animals help reduce poverty and provide food security for billions of people.

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

About Brooke

Brooke believes that animal suffering is preventable and that the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules and their owners are intertwined. 100 million equines are currently working worldwide, earning an income that around 600 million people rely on to put food on their tables and send their children to school. Unfortunately, many of these animals suffer from exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition as a result of excessive workloads and limited animal health services. Brooke works with owners, communities, local health providers and policymakers in over ten countries to implement positive, sustainable change in the lives of working animals and their owners. www.thebrooke.org

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

What Bill Gates needs to know about preventing the next pandemic

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