The world’s growing population and rise in numbers of domestic animals and livestock has created an ideal breeding ground for viruses to be passed between humans and animals, according to Cock Van Oosterhout, a professor of evolutionary genetics.
Countries must urgently introduce vaccination passports and maximise “genetic variation” in livestock and we should reduce how much meat we eat, he argues in a new paper.
The world’s leading biodiversity scientists warned last year future pandemics would be more frequent, spread more rapidly, kill more people and inflict even worse economic damage without fundamental changes to environmental approaches and wildlife exploitation.
Prof Van Oosterhout, of the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “We humans have been living in a non-sustainable way over the past few centuries. We now have a vast population size – not only of humans, but also of domesticated animals and livestock.
“This makes an ideal breeding ground for the evolution and transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases that jump from an animal to a human host.”
The number of livestock is 10 times higher than numbers of all Earth’s wildlife combined, according to his paper, published in the journal Virulence. But the lack of genetic variation in farmed animals creates opportunities for diseases to develop and be passed on.
Prof Van Oosterhout said: “The combination of high livestock biomass and low genetic variation has tipped the co-evolutionary balance with zoonotic pathogens.
“Habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trade and other human activities have brought many species into contact with each other – and this facilitates a spillover, spillback and hybridisation of the pathogens.
“Given that we are in close contact with our domesticated animals and livestock, there are many opportunities for the spillover of viruses from animals to humans, and spillback from humans back to animals.
“Altogether, these conditions have created a perfect storm for the evolution and transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases.”
He said humans urgently need to “reset the co-evolutionary imbalance” and control the spread of pathogens by using vaccination passports, maximising genetic variation in livestock and reducing our consumption of animal protein.
“It is time that we start to recognise that our health, the environment, and our global economy are all closely interlinked,” he added. “Pathogens like Sars-CoV-2 will continue to evolve when allowed to infect humans, anywhere in the world.”
Activists dressed in biohazard gear and surgical masks in 18 countries are tomorrow planning “Covid-safe” demonstrations, calling for a worldwide transition to a plant-based food system.