Coronavirus: treating the symptoms not the cause

| 9 July 2020
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Even before the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 disease outbreak to be a pandemic, scientists had been warning about other potential disease threats poised to emerge from factory farms and wildlife markets. This week, the message could not be starker as The Guardian detailed a new report from the UN warning that unless we address the causes of the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing destruction of nature will lead to more animal diseases spreading to humans.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, Inger Andersen, says: “The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead”.

While wildlife is the most common source of emerging infectious diseases, domesticated (farmed) animals may also be original sources, transmission pathways or amplifiers of zoonotic disease, says the report. Industrial farming of animals, especially pigs and chickens, is one of the primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases, say experts.

A key message in the report is that: “Pandemics such as the Covid-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals and alter environments”.

Doreen Robinson, UNEP’s Chief of Wildlife says: “Human activity is breaking down the natural buffer that once protected people from a number of pathogens. It’s critically important to get at the root causes, otherwise we will consistently just be reacting to things”.

The report takes a step back by looking at the causes of the emergence and spread of Covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases, with the aim of helping policymakers prevent future outbreaks. It identifies a number of factors driving zoonotic disease outbreaks; the rising demand for animal protein, more intensive and unsustainable farming practices, greater exploitation of wildlife, surging global travel and the climate crisis.

The ‘One Health’ approach shared by a number of health organisations recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. The UN report builds on the One Health approach as the best hope for preventing future pandemics. Adopting this approach will, the report says, unite medical, veterinary and environmental experts, in order to help governments, businesses and society in general achieve enduring health for people, animals and environments alike.

Our relationship with animals and the environment can no longer just focus on exploitation. The way animal-based foods are produced is now considered to be a global threat. It’s not just a case of banning wildlife markets; we must stop factory farming too.
To find out more about how factory farming is killing us go to

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
Justine joined Viva! in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. After working as a campaigner, then researcher and writer, she is now Viva!’s head of research and her work focuses on animals, the environment and health. Justine’s scientific training helps her research and write both in-depth scientific reports, such as White Lies and the Meat Report, as well as easy-to-read factsheets and myth-busting articles for consumer magazines and updates on the latest research. Justine also recently wrote the Vegan for the Planet guide for Viva!’s Vegan Now campaign.

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