The Coronavirus (SARS CoV2) pandemic-wildlife link. Putting it in context

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“The current pandemic is a forceful reminder of the need to treat global health as a system linking human, non-human animal and environmental health.”


The current pandemic is a forceful reminder of the need to treat global health as a system linking human, non-human animal and environmental health. By looking beyond the source and focusing on the drivers of infection at a systems level, we may stand a better chance of preventing or at least minimising the effects of future global health problems.

Pathogens do not know direction. If the host and environment situation for transmission is right, transmission will occur, regardless of host species. Although the origin of SARS CoV2 remains speculative, it is often reported that there is a wildlife reservoir for this disease. By utilising multidisciplinary skill sets to assess global health threats, we can help highlight the underlying drivers of disease threats like SARS CoV2 to attempt to prevent or at least moderate future outbreaks.

Some recent examples:

HIV-1 virus – evolved from Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIVcpz) transmitted from chimpanzees to humans by the slaughter and consumption of infected wild: Driver: human consumption of chimpanzee meat

Bat rabies re-emerged - Deforestation in the Amazon Basin: Driver: human deforestation

TB re-emerged in New Zealand - Farming of non-native deer and possums: Driver: human farming practise of non-native species

Monkeypox virus in the US - contact with pet prairie dogs exposed to a giant pouched rat recently imported from Ghana: Driver: the illegal and legal wild species pet trade

SARS emergence in SE Asia – wildlife trade for food, medicine (Holmes ED and A Rambaut, 2004, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences359.1447: 1059-1065). Driver: The illegal and legal bushmeat trade.

Often under reported is the effect of zoonotic infection in animals. Recent evidence indicates a variety of species could be at risk from infection with SARS CoV2 from human sources. Some are not yet verified such as the recent tiger case at the WCS Bronx Zoo. Others are confirmed but from other coronavirus types.

It is currently unknown whether the morbidity and mortality associated with SARS-CoV-2 in humans are similar in our closest relatives – the other apes. However, transmission of even mild human pathogens to apes can lead to severe outcomes, so the risks seem extremely high. We at the University of Birmingham are leading an international network of specialists working with apes in the wild and in captivity. The aim is to collate and disseminate recommended pandemic response protocols and research, both human and animal, combined with current response efforts of great ape conservation and welfare organisations to:

  1. Improve response efficacy and facilitate rapid access to expertise for practitioners that would not otherwise be available.
  2. Provide canvas and web based teaching resources for ongoing capacity building on outbreak management and wildlife focused One Health to strength resilience against future outbreaks.

These resources, some fully public, some within sector only, will be rolled out from mid-April 2020. We can then start to identify key data gaps for co-ordinated evidence based research in multi species emerging disease threats.