Is lockdown and the COVID-19 response just a dress rehearsal?

Our eating habits and the mistreatment of animals means that a serious pandemic is now on the cards

Scientists are reporting that eating meat is part of the cause of a new pandemic threat, "that makes COVID-19 look like a dress rehearsal".

Prof Robert Bragg, researcher in the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, UFS

Prof Robert BraggCOVID-19: Humankind has ignored warnings of coming pandemics for years

There will be more pandemics in the future and some scientists feel that the current COVID-19 pandemic is only a dress rehearsal for an even bigger pandemic. These pandemics will be driven by human demand for affordable meat on a regular basis - and is creating the perfect breeding ground for more diseases of this kind, say the scientists at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Prof Robert Bragg, researcher in the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, and Prof Aliza le Roux, Assistant Dean: Natural and Agricultural Sciences and Associate Professor: Zoology and Entomology at the University of the Free State (UFS), warn about future pandemics, saying that humans’ interaction with animals and lack of learning from the past are the reasons for this. 

Another researcher, Dr Martin Nyaga, Senior Lecturer/ Researcher: Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), agrees with Profs Bragg and Le Roux about new viruses and says viruses will keep emerging due to the general nature of viruses.

More pandemics on the cards

Dr Nyaga says, “There will be more pandemics, and there is a feeling among some scientists that this could just be a dress rehearsal for the real big pandemic. Many virologists, including me, have been predicting an influenza pandemic for many years. Mankind has been warned about the coming pandemics for many years, but people seem to want to listen only when they are in the midst of a pandemic.”

As Professor David Mabey from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reported over ten years ago, "A human influenza pandemic is generally considered to be inevitable at some time in the future, and H5N1 exhibits a number of features which suggest it could give rise to the next culprit strain. Being fore-warned is allowing us to lay down contingency plans in advance, and the use of effective drugs coupled with public health measures should enable us to significantly limit morbidity and mortality".

We need to prepare for the next pandemic

Professor Bragg says, “The bird-flu virus, Influenza H5N1, has a mortality rate of around 60-65%, but it has not yet developed human-to-human transmission. If this virus does develop human-to-human transmission, we could be in for a really serious pandemic! We need to prepare for the next major pandemic".

The mistreatment of animals by man

Prof Le Roux says humans’ need for affordable meat on a regular basis is creating the perfect breeding ground for more diseases like this. “This means our demand for meat is driving cheaper and less controlled agricultural practices, cramming more animals into smaller spaces, feeding them less and less natural fodder. 

We need to look at our own eating practices

“Remember mad cow disease? Have you seen chicken batteries? We should not blame ‘exotic’ eating practices, but look at our own. If we could see eating meat as a ‘treat’ and not a daily ‘right’, we can reduce pressure on the environment and reduce the speed at which another zoonotic virus can evolve,” according to Prof Le Roux.

Dr Nyaga says that more viruses are possible in other organisms as well. 

“In as much as research on viral particles continues, more outbreaks are possible within not only the coronavirus domain, but also any other class of organisms. The ever-changing nature of viruses, mainly due to mutations and other mechanisms of genetic diversity, could occur through chain of transmission, including via the intermediate hosts. This kind of antigenic mutations could make the general population vulnerable due to lack of immunity against the new strains of emerging strains or completely novel viruses,” says Dr Nyaga.

Origin of SARS-CoV-2 and other diseases

According to Prof Bragg, the previous coronavirus that led to SARS and caused major concerns, also started in a wet food market in China – just like COVID-19. That virus was traced to a civet cat used for meat in such a wet food market. This virus had a very high mortality rate but could only be transmitted when a person showed clinical signs. Therefore, measuring the temperature of people was useful and beneficial. 

“There are many other examples of serious human pandemics which was spread from animals to humans. Another good example is the Ebola virus, which has also been traced to people eating bats in Africa. Yet another example is HIV, which is believed to have spread to man as a result of the consumption of chimpanzee meat.” 

“The most serious has been the 1918 Spanish flu, which started off in pigs and spread to man. All of these have to do with the mistreatment of animals by man,” says Prof Bragg.

Learning from past pandemics

Prof Le Roux says past pandemics can teach us how to respond from a public health perspective. “If we found treatments that worked before, we can use that as a starting point for current treatments. But if we can’t even control human behaviour (learning from past mistakes), think of how much more challenging it is to develop a vaccine against a virus that is so adaptable.”

Prof Bragg adds: “Mankind should also have learned lessons from the 1918 pandemic, but man is notoriously slow at learning lessons from the past. Each generation wants to make their own mistakes. One can only draw parallels from the people who defined lockdown regulations in 1918 to celebrate the end of the First World War and the demonstrations currently underway in the USA.” 

“The celebrations in 1918 caused more deaths than have occurred during the four years of the First World War! I predict that within a week or two, the number of cases and mortalities in the USA (and around the world) are going to skyrocket,” says Prof Bragg.

Knowing the animals involved

Dr Nyaga explains that identification of the source (reservoir hosts) and the intermediate host(s) is crucial in devising strategies, including palliative measures and designing drugs or vaccines against a potential pathogenic agent such as SARS-CoV-2. This will help in understanding the genomic dynamics and likely immunological responses that could be triggered along the chain of transmission to humans, and more importantly, how the compounds in the therapies can terminate the different stages of viral replication.

Prof Le Roux says she is not sure if a vaccine would be developed based on knowledge of a host species, but there is the possibility that (depending on the species) we can use some of the host’s antibodies to develop our own antibody therapies. “But generally, the knowledge can help more long-term planning on how to avoid future host shifts to humans. If we know where the virus originated, we can study that species or group of species better, and understand how the mutations occurred, etc. It would help us with future prevention more than current mitigation, I think.”

Research in the fight against COVID-19

According to the experts, various research efforts are afoot on the control of the disease. These range from the development of a vaccine, development of antiviral drugs, and the development of monoclonal antibodies or antibody fragments. Research is also needed on improved, faster, and cheaper diagnostic tests to test for the presence of the virus as well as for the detection of antibodies against the virus in people. This last test is needed to demonstrate the efficacy of vaccines as well as people in the population who have recovered from the virus. 

Prof Bragg says research on the epidemiology of the virus is also needed. How far it can spread and how long it can survive are critical questions, particularly when talking about social distancing. Much of the current information is based on guesswork.  

“Worldwide, research efforts are gaining an understanding of the virus and how it is causing disease in humans. If you think that this virus was unknown before December 2019, mankind has very quickly learned a lot about this virus and there are many very interesting articles coming out on what receptors the virus binds to and how the virus causes damage to the host and overcomes the host defence mechanisms,” says Prof Bragg.

Dr Nyaga says while the understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 is still in its infancy, results are already emerging on the molecular dynamics and immunological perspectives of the virus. With the characterisation of the genomic sequences of the virus, it has been possible to design several vaccines, including the inactivated virus, viral vectors, nucleic acid-based and protein-based vaccines. A good number of them are currently under clinical trials for possible WHO qualification towards global use. 

“Just recently, a clinical trial on one of these vaccines, called ‘the South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-trial’, was on schedule locally to be championed by the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,” says Dr Nyaga. 

According to him, effective prevention essentially requires an in-depth understanding of the clinical severity of COVID-19, the extent of transmission and infection, and the efficacy of treatment options in order to accelerate the development of diagnostics and treatment options.

Prof Bragg says that the socio-economic impact of the virus is very serious at this stage. The final number of human cases and fatalities are still a long way from completion.  This virus is going to be with us for quite some time and the mortality rate in some countries with high levels of HIV and TB could become very high.

Defining "Zoonoses" and zoonotic pathogens

Definition of zoonoses according to the WHO:

A zoonosis is an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans. Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment. They represent a major public health problem around the world due to our close relationship with animals in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Zoonoses can also cause disruptions in the production and trade of animal products for food and other uses. 

Zoonoses comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases as well as many existing ones. Some diseases, such as HIV, begin as a zoonosis but later mutate into human-only strains. Other zoonoses can cause recurring disease outbreaks, such as Ebola virus disease and salmonellosis. Still others, such as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, have the potential to cause global pandemics. 

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