This year, we’ve seen how a previously unknown animal virus can spill over into the human population in one country, pass rapidly between people, and spread across the world in days. With nearly 1.5m reported deaths from Covid-19, the virus is a startling indication of how the health of the world’s human population is inseparable from animals and the environment that we share with them.
Treating health in a way that recognises these interdependencies is called the One Health approach. Rather than studying human health in isolation, this approach considers how the health of people, animals and the environment are intimately related. Zoonotic diseases that we catch from animals emerge most frequently in places where humans and animals interact closely, while the globalisation of trade and international travel, the intensification of agriculture and ecosystem destruction all contribute to the increased risk of animal pathogens infecting humans. Instead of leaving the job of protecting human health exclusively to medical experts, the One Health approach shares responsibility across veterinary, biological, environmental and social sciences.
We’ve worked as principal investigators on international One Health projects in parts of Asia and Africa for years, working with local scientists to research zoonotic diseases. Through one of our projects, working with scientists in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam, we study zoonotic diseases and antimicrobial resistance linked to poultry, such as avian flu, which remains a significant pandemic risk. Another project trains scientists in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia in One Health research techniques, including into zoonotic and potentially pandemic diseases.
These programmes and many others like them are supported with funding from UK Aid. Some £1.5bn of the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid was used to create the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which has enabled UK scientists and researchers to develop networks and projects with scientists in low and middle-income countries across the world.
But at a time when this international approach is needed more than ever to protect us from future pandemics, it’s coming under threat from the government’s proposal to slash its aid budget by a third, from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. We don’t yet know where the axe will fall, but some researchers are worried that in the longer term, projects focused on building the capacity to deal with emerging pathogens in other countries could lose funding.
Not only has funding from UK Aid put UK science and innovation on the global map – it’s also been crucial in preventing the emergence of pandemics and funding treatments for them. The government has pledged £7.2m in UK funding for 20 new research projects to address the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s most vulnerable communities, and the GCRF, for example, invested £12.4m to help establish five UK-led global vaccine networks involving hundreds of academic organisations in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa. These networks support scientific collaborations and help build research capacity across the world. One of these, the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network, specifically targets vaccines for animal diseases, helping to protect food security and potentially reduce the risk of zoonotic disease spillover to people.
And since 2015 the government has committed £120m funding from the UK aid budget to support the manufacturing and delivery of vaccines for diseases that the UK Vaccine Network has classed as having the potential to cause pandemics. This work, undertaken largely in the UK, focuses on helping to develop vaccines for emerging diseases in low- and middle-income countries. As pandemics do not recognise borders, this work also helps protect UK health.
Take the Mers coronavirus for example. This virus, first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, was one of the diseases on the UK Vaccine Network’s priority list. It causes severe respiratory disease and is transmitted to humans from infected dromedary camels. Funding for Mers vaccine development was awarded to the Oxford Jenner Institute, which had already reached an advanced stage in its research by the start of 2020, allowing the researcher teams to rapidly adapt their approach to develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
We’ve already experienced numerous recent disease outbreaks that originated in animals, from Sars to H5N1/H1N1 influenza, Mers, Ebola, Zika and now Covid-19. We can be confident that many more will follow. Alongside these sporadic emergencies, which rightly receive huge media attention, the world faces a more insidious and arguably even greater danger from the ongoing march of global antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
In the words just last week of the WHO director-general, “Antimicrobial resistance … threatens to unwind a century of medical progress and leave us defenceless against infections that today can be treated easily”. Like viral pandemics, the causes of AMR are complex, often originate in contexts where animals are in close contact, and are best addressed with an interconnected approach that considers factors such as water, sanitation and hygiene as well as the misuse of antibiotics to treat animal and human diseases. And like pandemics, the development of AMR in one part of the world threatens everyone.
The UK’s track record in funding international One Health projects, including vaccinology for human and animal diseases, has put it in a strong position to help end the current pandemic and prevent the next one from emerging. But the government’s decision to reduce its commitment to UK aid to 0.5% GNI, considerably less than the 2010 level of 0.57%, threatens to deplete future funding that makes these crucial projects possible.
• Matthew Baylis is director of the Global Challenges Research Fund HORN project and professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Liverpool. Fiona Tomley is director of the GCRF One Health poultry hub and professor of experimental parasitology at the Royal Veterinary College, London. She is a member of the UK Vaccine Network.