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Zoonoses: Animals and Major Pandemics in History
April 3, 2021 - 11:18 am

Pandemics, antivirals, herd immunity… SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spreading around the world has led to the repetition of several scientific concepts in news on the virus. One term that is part of this glossary is at the heart of the virus’ origin: zoonoses.

Zoonoses refers to the process by which animal diseases are naturally transmitted to human beings, either through the person’s direct exposure to the animals or by consuming food made of the animals. Although the animal from which the COVID-19 disease spread to humans has not been scientifically confirmed, the focus now seems to be on the pangolin. Even though zoonoses is all over the news today, it is a process that is very well known and which lies at the origin of many diseases, as well as major pandemics in history.

Why have human beings been, and will continue to be, exposed to these kinds of pandemics? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s report World Livestock 2013: Changing disease landscape provides a key fact: 70 percent of the new diseases that have emerged in human beings in recent decades are of animal original. This percentage show the extent to which human health is closely tied to livestock and animal health. The same report mentioned other factors that have contributed to the spread of these kinds of diseases in recent years, such as poverty, deficient healthcare systems and healthcare infrastructure in some places, international travel and trade, climate change and increasing pressure on ecosystems.

From the Black Death to mad cow disease, we will go over some of the most important zoonoses in the history of humankind prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 disease.

THE BLACK DEATH

In the 14th Century, the Black Death took the lives of 50 million people. This devastating epidemic, considered one of the most lethal in the history of humankind, it a bacterial form of zoonoses, as it is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is found in small mammals and the fleas infest them. Living conditions in the Middle Age contributed to how rapidly it spread, as people had a lot of contact with fleas and other rat parasites.

The Black Death continues to exist today as an animal disease in all continents except Oceania, but most human cases are currently in Africa. The three most endemic countries are Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Peru.

RABIES

Rabies are a viral form of zoonotic disease caused by a virus from the Rhabdoviridae family. It can affect any wild or domestic mammal and spread to people through bites or scratches. In 99 percent of the cases, it is spread through domestic dogs. Therefore, the most effective way to combat this disease is by vaccinating dogs, which is why this vaccine is required in many regions.

Louis Pasteur developed the first vaccine for rabies in humans in the year 1885. The renowned French chemist used it to treat a nine year old boy after he had been bitten by a rabid dog, leading to his recovery and those of thousands more people in the following months.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that is is currently a neglected disease, as most cases are concentrated in poor and vulnerable populations. Over 95 percent of human deaths from rabies take place in Asia or Africa even though immunoglobulins and vaccinations effective in humans have existed for more than a century.

BOVINE SPONGIFORM ENCEPHALOPATHY

Better known as “mad cow disease”, the first cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) were detected in animals in the U.K. in 1986. In 1996, a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) was identified in humans, and was related to the BSE epidemic in cattle. The transmission of the disease to humans occured by consuming contaminated meat.

The appearance of BSE in cattle was related to the practice of feeding animals the remains of ruminant livestock. Abandoning this compound for cattle feed eliminated the possibility of animals getting BSE, and therefore the risk of transmitting it to humans by consuming meat.

AVIAN FLU

Avian flu is zoonoses caused by Influenza A virus subtypes. It is a type of flu that originally affects birds, but some strains can infect different mammals that are in contact with infected birds, including humans. In 1997, human infections were identified for the first time in Hong Kong. From 2004 to 2006 the virus spread from Asian fowl to Europe, and WHO warned that this could increase the possibility of avian flu becoming a pandemic. Ten years later, in 2013, it was back in the news after spreading to hundreds of people in China with the new strain, H7N9.

Even though some experts say there is a possibility of a strain of avian flu becoming the great pandemic of the 21st Century, this has not yet taken place because the virus has not yet mutated in a way that facilitates its transmission among people. In the future, if a strain is capable of overcoming this barrier, it could spark this pandemic.

Source: OpenMind BBVA

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Vaccine Passports: what we need to know

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than half a million people in the US and has seriously impacted our daily lives. The granting of Emergency Use Authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines has been a game changer in helping to reverse the pandemic onslaught. Demand for the vaccines currently far exceeds supply nationwide. They have become the golden ticket that can transport us back to a time when routine activities, such as attending school or taking vacations, didn’t seem fraught with danger. What’s the best way to go about re-establishing these activities? One idea that’s getting discussed seriously is giving those who have been immunized a vaccination passport (VP).

What is a vaccination passport?

Let’s start by clarifying some terminology. VPs are documents that show that someone has been given a vaccine(s) and is therefore presumed to be immune from getting and sharing that disease. These are distinct from diagnostic tests to determine if a person is or is not infected with a particular virus (PCR and viral antigen tests) or has been exposed to a virus (antibody tests). VPs are the modern day equivalents of the “letters of transit” that played a key role in the film Casablanca. They’ll enable you to travel freely.

Why give vaccine passports?

Vaccinated people are unlikely to transmit the virus that causes COVID-19 with others, though this has yet to be definitely proven. So, what’s the primary rationale for giving vaccination passports? It seems the goal is to incentivize people to get vaccinated. Folks might be more likely to seek out the vaccine if it bestows upon them certain privileges, such as being able to travel freely. While the idea might sound appealing at one level, the road to vaccine passports is pockmarked with political potholes and littered with logistical land mines.

Administrative issues

There are a lot of important questions that need to be answered before VPs can become widespread; it’s unlikely there will be a “one size fits all” solution. What might VPs look like? Pieces of paper (that could easily be lost or counterfeited), or a digital key or document you store on your smartphone (that many older folks still don’t have)? If you lost one, how would you get it replaced? Would your vaccination records be tied to your other medical records, and if so, what kind of privacy and security protections would be needed to safeguard your data? How would the passport administrator verify that you got vaccinated in the first place? Who is responsible for correcting any errors that crop up? Given how much we’ve struggled as a nation to simply solve the scheduling of vaccinations, VPs might be significantly more difficult to manage.

Who’s going to run the program?

A coalition of health tech leaders (including Epic, the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft and Salesforce) has started the Vaccination Credential Initiative to create an internationally accepted digital health card. Its vision – as stated on its website – is “to empower individuals to obtain an encrypted digital copy of their immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice. Those without smartphones could receive paper printed with QR codes containing World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) verifiable credentials.” Some European countries (e.g. Denmark) are working on developing their own immunization passports, and the President of the European Union Commission has voiced support for them.

We already have a hodgepodge system designed to keep folks with COVID-19 from traveling. Many airlines are requiring proof of non-infectivity to board a plane – these are distinct from VPs. The methods adopted vary from airline to airline: United uses Travel Ready Center, American uses VeriFly while others use Common Pass. Saga cruises are the first in the UK to demand proof of vaccination, but not everyone is on board with the concept. The World Travel and Tourism Council stated its opposition to allowing travel only by those who have been vaccinated, on the grounds that it is discriminatory.

Discrimination concerns

The concept of gaining advantage from one’s immunological status is not a new one. In New Orleans in the mid 19th century, great economic value was attached to those who survived the onslaught of epidemic waves of yellow fever. A mix of structural racism and a system valuing “immunocapital” ranked men and women highly if they were yellow fever survivors. Those that had not had the disease yet found it difficult to obtain work or obtain credit and women could not marry. Slaves were similarly revalued, with larger assessments attached to survivors. This legacy of viral discrimination casts a long shadow over current discussions surrounding vaccination passports.

Also problematic is the fact that not everyone will be eligible for VPs. Some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons but would still like to participate in whatever activities the passports enable (such as travel opportunities). These individuals will likely file complaints if they are denied VPs, arguing that they’re discriminatory in nature. Vaccine opponents will no doubt also file lawsuits seeking to block the use of VPs, claiming they represent an attack on their freedoms and personal choice.

Others may be shut out of VP programs because they don’t have the computer skills to register online, a problem that’s turned out to be widespread with the vaccinations. Don’t have any ID? In some places this prevents the most vulnerable from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and therefore VPs as well. Many Black and marginalized communities are already deeply suspicious of the medical establishment, and wary of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Restrictions that prevent these groups from participating in various societal activities because they don’t have VPs will echo the Jim Crow days of poll taxes and literacy tests that were required to vote.

Enforcement issues

VPs bring up a similar issue as mask mandates: who is going to enforce them? It is one thing for a cruise line to do so, since reservations are required and extensive paperwork needs to be filled out in advance. Who is going to keep non-vaccinated people out of restaurants or concerts that require proof of vaccination? We’ve already seen anti-maskers storm department stores, ignore requirements to wear masks on planes and even kill a security guard who confronted them.

Black market for vaccine passports

Many airlines are now requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they will let their customers fly. This has led to a black market for fake negative COVID-19 test results for those who are looking to game the system. Similarly, bogus cards claiming that the cardholder was exempt– for medical reasons – from having to wear a mask, have been manufactured and distributed. It’s not hard to imagine that a similar market will emerge for VPs.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Given the multitude of issues and concerns listed above, moving forward with issuing vaccination passports seems highly problematic. If the primary purpose of having VPs is to drive up immunization rates, that can be better accomplished by running public service announcements and ads illustrating how liberating it is to start doing normal activities once vaccinated. A nationwide campaign to do just that is already in the works. I personally can think of a better use for the time and money that will be spent on establishing VPs: use them to focus efforts on overcoming vaccine hesitancy in concert with combatting the high tide of online vaccine misinformation and disinformation.

Source: Technology Networks

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