26 October 2020 by Prof Wanda Markotter
“One health” refers to a transdisciplinary approach that focuses on the convergence of humans, animals and their various environments.
The University of Pretoria (UP) is strategically well positioned to lead this research field because it has several faculties which, combined, have the necessary expertise and infrastructure to address the transdisciplinary research aspects of this complex field. This includes the Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Veterinary Science and the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
In 2016, UP established the Centre for Viral Zoonoses (UP CVZ), hosted in the Faculty of Health Sciences, to coordinate and strengthen established research in viral zoonotic diseases (illnesses that spill over from animals to humans). The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the seriousness of this field of research to the fore.
The UP CVZ is headed by Professor Wanda Markotter, who is also the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair in Infectious Diseases of Animals (Zoonoses).
“Over the past four decades, about 75% of important emerging and re-emerging diseases spilled over from animals, most of which originated from Africa and the majority from a wildlife origin,” says Prof Markotter. “Fatal zoonoses had significant financial implications, with the World Bank estimating economic losses between 1997 and 2009 of US$80 billion, and that US$6.7 billion a year could be saved globally by preventing emerging disease outbreaks. The current COVID-19 pandemic costs will increase these numbers significantly.
“Biosurveillance in African bat species specifically is an important part of our programme, and as the diversity of pathogens expand, it is necessary to constantly evaluate the detection capability and sensitivity of our analyses, as well as generate diagnostic capacity both in the country and for the region. In addition to virological testing, a transdisciplinary approach is followed that includes data collection on host biology and ecological data as well as environmental correlations with infection dynamics. High-risk factors and potential contact with other animals and humans are identified, and mitigation strategies for prevention are implemented.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in the most devastating global pandemic in modern history. Wildlife species, including bats, are suggested to have played a role in spillover events. Significant global surveillance has been conducted among bat populations for more than a decade, with the aim of assessing and understanding specifically coronavirus diversity, preventing spillover opportunities and preparing for future emerging viruses. Despite these efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred.
“Future spillover from wildlife and other animals must be prevented,” says Prof Markotter. “To react only when it is already a disease transmitted between humans is too late and extremely costly, both in human lives and economic impact. As the human population grows, leading to more pressure on our environments, the risk for the spillover of diseases will increase. An increase in human populations comes with additional pressure for food security and infrastructure, which leads to more contact with animals either as a food source or by changing the environment and creating opportunities for contact.
“Prevention and readiness require a holistic approach among academics, scientists, societies, governments and non-profit organisations, focused on developing sustainable solutions and mitigation strategies that are practical for our region and beyond. Research that matters to societies must always be at the core of our work.”
Watch Prof Markotter as she expands further on this topic in the 26th Expert Lecture