New ‘One Health’ Expert Panel to Address Emergence and Spread of Zoonotic Diseases, as Risk of Zoonoses Rises


Inspecting a pig’s health in Busia, western Kenya in 2010. Livestock often serve as a bridge for the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

A new international expert panel launched by four international organisations on Thursday aims to blunt the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases through better understanding of human, animal, and environmental interactions that enable animal-borne diseases to break into human populations.  

The One Health High Level Expert Panel will advise the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) on developing a long-term global plan of action to avert outbreaks of diseases, such as Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19.

The panel was borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic and was proposed by Germany and France at the Paris Peace Forum last November. 

“The rapid establishment of this panel shows the commitment of the international community to learn from all lessons of the current health crisis,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, at a press conference on Thursday.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful demonstration that human health does not exist in a vacuum, and nor can our efforts to protect and promote it,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

“The close links between human, animal, and environmental health, demand close collaboration, communication and coordination between the relevant sectors,” said Tedros.

Zoonotic Diseases as a Major Neglected Health Risk Area

Some 75% of all emerging infections are transmitted from animals and 60% of the known infectious diseases in humans can be transmitted by animals through direct contact or through food, water, and the environment. 

Neglected zoonotic diseases kill at least two million people annually, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

Health threats are becoming increasingly complex due to the interdependent relationships humans have with animals and the environment for food, livelihoods, and wellbeing. Factors include poaching and ecosystem destruction that brings people into closer contact with wild animals as well as commerce in wild animals for food and traditional medicines.  

Zoonotic diseases, including rabies, zoonotic influenza, Ebola, and Rift Valley fever, as well as food-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance, have major impacts on health, livelihoods, and economies.

Emerging pathogens are crossing the animal-human barrier with increased frequency or greater impact, potentially due to environmental changes in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, deforestation can lead to increased human contact with wild animals that harbour and transmit diseases.

In urban areas, the crowded conditions used to house animals in industrialised livestock production systems allow infections to easily mutate and jump to human hosts. 

Certain wild animals – including rodents, bats, carnivores and non-human primates – are most likely to harbour zoonotic pathogens, with livestock often serving as a bridge for transmission. 

Global demand for animal meat has risen by 260%, which has prompted large scale industrialised livestock production and is exacerbating the risk of spreading zoonoses.

Risk of Zoonotic Epidemics Rises as Humans Increasingly Cause Environmental Degradation

The rising trend in zoonotic diseases is likely being driven by increased demand for animal protein; unsustainable farming practices; increased exploitation of wildlife; unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization and extractive industries; increased travel; changes in food supply; and climate change, according to a UNEP report published in July 2020. 

“As we exploit more marginal areas, we are creating opportunities for transmission,” said Eric Fèvre, Professor of Veterinary Infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool, in a press release. “There is an increasing risk of seeing bigger epidemics and, eventually, a pandemic of the COVID-19 type as our footprint on the world expands.”

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is another growing public health threat that is linked to the use of antibiotics in livestock and agriculture. The overuse or misuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals can lead to antimicrobial resistant infections in humans that cause longer illnesses, more frequent hospitalizations, and treatment failures. 

Testing for antimicrobial resistance at the Liverpool School of Tropical Science.

Currently, at least 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases. 

“We need, among other things, to break down disciplinary and organisational silos, to invest in public health programmes, to farm sustainable, to end the over-exploitation of wildlife, to restore land and ecosystem health and to reduce climate change,” said Jimmy Smith, Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute, in the UNEP report. 

Most efforts to control zoonotic diseases to date have been reactive instead of proactive. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the root causes of novel zoonotic diseases need to be addressed in order to prevent future outbreaks, said officials at the press conference. 

The purpose of the new expert panel will be to consider the impact of human activity on the environment and wildlife habitats and its link to zoonotic diseases. 

The One Health approach is widely considered the optimal way to respond to and prevent future pandemics, as it unites medical, veterinary and environmental expertise and recognises the links between the health of people, animals, and the environment.

The launch of the One Health High Level Expert Panel is the latest attempt from the tripartite alliance to promote the One Health approach.

Panel will Take ‘One Health’ Concept to the Next Level

While the One Health concept is not new and the tripartite alliance between WHO, FAO, and OIE was formed over a decade ago to develop the concept, “the high level expert panel is a much needed initiative to take it to the next level,” said Tedros. 

“The high level expert panel will advise us on how to bridge the gaps between sectors, connecting veterinary and human medicine, and environmental issues and to address the challenge of implementation at both the global and country level,” Tedros added. 

The 26-member panel held its inaugural meeting on Monday, in which four working groups were established. The working groups will focus on implementing “One Health”; extracting best practices from existing global programmes and projects; establishing surveillance and early warning systems; and identifying spillover factors. 

Dr Thomas Mettenleiter, co-chair of the One Health High Level Expert Panel.

The next meeting will take place before the summer and the panel plans to release its first tangible results by the fall, said Dr Thomas Mettenleiter, co-chair of the expert panel. 

The initial efforts of the new body will be to examine the factors that lead to the transmission of a disease from animals to humans, develop risk assessment frameworks, and identify capacity gaps to prepare for and prevent zoonotic outbreaks. 

“This panel will contribute to advancing the One Health agenda, by helping to better understand the root causes of disease emergence and spread, and informing decision-makers to prevent long-term public health risks,” said Dr Qu Dongyu, Director General of FAO.

Dr Qu Dongyu, Director General of FAO.

It will “provide robust scientific analysis…and evidence-based recommendations on policy approach[es] with long term relevance that will reduce the risk of emergence of zoonosis with pandemic potential,” said Dr Monique Eloit, Director General of the OIE. 

“The work of the panel will help us advocate for bold policy measures and investments to reduce the risk of future pandemics, and to change harmful practices that threaten us now and in future generations,” said Tedros. 

France Calls for “Other Sweeping Measures”

At the press conference on Thursday, France announced its commitment of €3 million to support the secretariat of the panel.

“We hope that the creation of this panel…will be followed by other sweeping measures,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs.

Pandemic-related reforms and new measures will be debated at the G-20 Global Health Summit, which will take place virtually tomorrow, and at the upcoming 74th World Health Assembly (24 May-1 June).

A draft ‘Rome Declaration’ that will be issued at the G-20 meeting on Friday, calls for a “One Health approach…to address threats emerging at the human-animal-ecosystems interface, and antimicrobial resistance.”

Hot on the agenda for the World Health Assembly are talks for a “pandemic treaty” to better prevent, prepare and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. If such a treaty were to exist, there would be pressure from numerous experts to take a One Health approach. 

Image Credits: Nettverk for dyrs frihet / Net. for Animal Freedom, ILRI / Charlie Pye-Smith, WHO, Flickr – UK Department for International Development.

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