On the one-year anniversary of Covid-19 being declared a pandemic, a leading animal-welfare organisation is writing an open letter to those at the highest levels, accusing them and governments of tackling the symptoms but not the root cause of the pandemic.
The letter, which is addressed to the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), says that to prevent zoonotic pandemics, the world should “stop focusing on interim pharmaceutical solutions while not addressing the actual issues around animal abuse”.
Four Paws tells the WHO director-general it is “deeply concerning” that despite his speech a year ago on infection-prevention, the same approach is not being applied to tackling the causes of the pandemic and other zoonoses – viruses that jump from animals to humans.
The letter, seen by The Independent, demands risky practices be “urgently phased out”, with:
- a ban on fur farms
- a ban on live animal markets
- an end to the dog and cat meat trade
- a halt to wildlife trade
- a crackdown on risks created by factory farming
- and an acknowledgement of the need to eat less meat, a key driver of the climate crisis and habitat loss
In 2007-2011, the three global organisations, the WHO, FAO and OIE, set up a plan called One Health, agreeing to work to reduce health risks, including animal-human interactions.
Worldwide group Four Paws wants them to add a “One Welfare” plan, stressing links between animal welfare and people’s wellbeing.
“The underlying problem is the dysfunctional relationship between us, humans, with animals and nature,” said Josef Pfabigan, the charity’s president.
“Only when concrete measures ending animal suffering are introduced worldwide can future zoonotic pandemics be stopped.
“We demand a holistic approach from those responsible, because animal welfare equals environmental health equals human wellbeing.”
According to both the WHO and a UN environment report last year, 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and Four Paws is warning of “ticking time bombs all over the world” from practices where pathogens may emerge and spread.
The WHO itself says zoonoses cause a billion cases of illness in people and millions of deaths every year.
As he declared Covid-19 a pandemic, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach.”
But the letter warns him: “High-risk practices, like the commercial wildlife trade, the dog and cat meat trade and fur must be urgently phased out if we are to prevent another crippling pandemic.
“Our food and farming systems must become more resilient to crises, through a reduced reliance on animal products, and less disruptive to the natural processes that protect us from emerging diseases. To do this we need joint leadership and joint action.”
Calling for a ban on all commercial trade of wild animals for human consumption, for traditional medicine, entertainment, and private keeping, he writes: “All forms of wild animal trade are associated with high risks of spreading zoonotic diseases. The Sars outbreak in 2002 has also been traced back to a wildlife market in China.”
Insanitary cramped markets weaken animals’ immune systems.
“These conditions and dangers are not only found in live animal markets in Asia. Pigs and chickens, treated equally dreadfully in factory farms, have succumbed to swine and bird flu worldwide,” said Mr Pfabigan.
“Millions of mink, vegetating on fur farms in Europe, have been infected with Covid-19 and reinfected humans with mutations of the virus. As long as we let animals suffer like this, we humans will suffer the consequences of zoonotic diseases.”
Industrial animal agriculture is a powerful incubator of diseases, the letter adds, highlighting that in 2018, African swine fever almost halved the Chinese pig population, affecting food security and prices globally.
“This once-seasonal outbreak is now an all-year-round threat, spanning continents, and multiple variants have thwarted efforts todevelop a vaccine,” the letter says.
“This pandemic has also shown that farmers, veterinarians, and abattoir workers particularly are at an increased risk of contracting zoonotic diseases and play an important role in their spread, withone particular outbreak putting this group at a 1,500-times higher risk than the general population.”
Pressure to produce more and cheaper animal products, it says, leads to ever more animals kept in poor-welfare environments, while the resulting land change fuels climate change and biodiversity loss.
“Multiple zoonotic diseases have been definitively linked to the dog and cat meat trade including cholera. In addition, the dog and cat meat trade itself fulfils many of the conditions for pathogen emergence and spread,” he writes.
A spokesman for the World Health Organisation said: “The areas of work in which a One Health approach is particularly relevant include food safety, the control of zoonoses, and combating antibiotic resistance, when bacteria change after being exposed to antibiotics and become more difficult to treat.
“Cross-sectoral collaboration is key to understanding and managing public health risks at the human-animal-environment interface and improving global health security. WHO works with national governments, academia, non-governmental and philanthropic organisations, and regional and international partners, including with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), to prevent and manage these threats and their public health, social and economic impacts.”
The FAO and IOE have also been contacted for comment.