The COVID-19 pandemic is showing signs of slowing down, with vaccinations drives around the world in full swing, although the virus continues to claim lives today. It is now more than a year since the world was gripped by the virus, and at the time, its rapid spread caught most people off guard. However, pandemics have always been on the cards and should not have come as such a surprise, and there will be more pandemics if lessons are not learned from COVID-19.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018 looked back at the 1918 influenza pandemic and assessed global pandemic readiness at the time. It listed multiple factors that could pose a challenge. This assessment now appears prophetic.
The convergence of human and animal worlds was touted as something that could pose a pandemic risk. The rise of COVID-19 is attributed to the infection spreading from animals to humans. While investigations are still ongoing, a wet market in Wuhan, China, has been linked to the outbreak. Wet markets typically sell fresh, perishable produce, but can sometimes also sell wild animals and their meat, like the Huanan market in Wuhan. Such environments can prove to be perfect breeding grounds for pandemic-causing pathogens.
While the concept of wet markets might seem foreign to Americans, there exists a near equivalent in the United States: state fairs. The Wisconsin State Fair, held annually at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis., features exhibitions of farm animals as part of its itinerary. Such events provide a similar environment for human-animal interaction that can result in the inter-species spread of disease.
Dr. Andrew Bowman of Ohio State University and his team have been looking at county fair pigs around the country and anticipating the risk of influenza by trying to identify new strains in them. Considering the swine flu pandemic of 2009 spread from pigs to humans, state and county fairs acting as the intersection of food, farm animals and humans can serve as a future pandemic breeding ground, much like wet markets.
Another potential means of inter-species exposure is through exotic pets. Wisconsin is one of four states with no statewide regulations of exotic animals. Exotic animals can carry zoonotic diseases — diseases that spread from animal to man — like Herpes B, Monkeypox and Salmonellosis. Considering COVID-19 likely originated from a non-domesticated animal and has been linked to bats or pangolins in the past, exotic animals could certainly act as a pandemic kickstarter in the future as well.
In addition to the blurring of the human-animal divide, the CDC’s report also listed the potentially devastating effect a pandemic could have on supply chains. This was made abundantly clear when, due to the dramatic decrease in demand for milk from restaurants and schools, Wisconsin dairy farmers could not sell the milk allocated to those markets and were instead forced to dump milk while store shelves lay barren due to low consumer demand.
Healthcare services were also predicted to be disrupted. The “treatment and clinical care” section of the report outlined limited ventilator access and the potential for healthcare systems to become overwhelmed. Ventilator access was a major national concern at the beginning of the current pandemic, while in November 2020, Wisconsin hospitals were said to be nearing a “tipping point,” almost hitting capacity. Disruptions to this system certainly played a role in the United States' recent grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths.
Besides the factors mentioned in the report, the overall dismissal of science also contributed to the current situation and could contribute to a future pandemic. The anti-mask, anti-lockdown protests are well documented and serve as a prime example of Americans dismissing science. In 2019, the United States Agency for International Development’s Predict project was scrapped, cutting funding for scientists hunting for potential pandemic pathogens. The program discovered nearly 1,000 novel viruses, including a new Ebola virus.
Looking back at the report and the effects of the current pandemic, there are clear lessons to be learned. The barrier between humans and animals must not be eroded further. Considering the state of Wisconsin specifically, regulating exotic pets is imperative. State and county farms in Wisconsin and around the country should enforce strict guidelines to mitigate the spread of disease.
Further funding for scientists researching pathogens and pandemics should be deemed a priority at every level — from local to global. Strengthening supply chains and healthcare systems is also crucial to the protection of people from the most devastating effects of global pandemics, perhaps even preventing a disease from becoming a pandemic.
Most importantly of all, trust in science must be restored. Despite occasionally conflicting information arising from the scientific community, the rigorous methods employed in scientific inquiry ensure that any answers found are as close to the truth as can be.