Skip to main content

Animal Diseases: Future Pandemics

Volume 814: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the proportion of infectious diseases in people that originate in animals; and what plans they have to adopt a “One Health” approach to prepare for future pandemics.

My Lords, zoonotic diseases comprise approximately 75% of all newly identified infectious diseases and 60% of existing ones. The UK has world-leading “one health” expertise already enhancing the detection, investigation and management of zoonotic diseases. We must continue to weave this approach into the fabric of domestic and global architecture. Through our G7 presidency and ambitious initiatives, such as the centre for pandemic preparedness, we will further strengthen our “one health” capability.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I shall press him for more specifics. Given the huge cost of zoonotic pandemics—Covid-19 has been estimated to cost the UK £340 billion—what plans have Her Majesty’s Government been considering to improve animal health, public health and environmental health systems which are critical in the prevention of spillover infections from animals to humans in the UK and abroad?

My Lords, there is a very large number of initiatives. I emphasise our international efforts to reverse the underlying causes of spillover infections from animals to humans, including biodiversity loss and the risk from the illegal wildlife trade. Using the UK’s G7 presidency, we have committed to doing more by establishing the International Zoonoses Community of Experts, by creating the centre for pandemic preparedness and conducting a one health intelligence scoping study to ensure that the systems work better together to identify future threats.

My Lords, in 2016 a woman in rural Thailand spotted a cow frothing at the mouth. She snapped a few photos, reported it on the “one health” disease detection app and local authorities stepped in. They limited the spread of foot and mouth to just three cows, averting millions in potential losses. This app is now expanding across Asia and Africa, supported by Dame Sally Davies’s Trinity Challenge. This demonstrates that ever more global health data by itself is just not enough; it is deriving actionable insights from that data that matters, and that needs dedicated analytics tech at scale. What steps is the Minister taking to find and scale the “one health” surveillance tech that we need to prevent future pathogenic risk?

My Lords, my noble friend puts it extremely well. It is exactly that kind of intervention at the front line that can nip infections in the bud, but it is only through international collaboration that we can really tackle the threat of zoonotic infection. The concept of zoonotic tech is not one that I had previously come across, but I will take it away from this debate and have a good look at what more we could do to support it.

My Lords, one of the key “one health” projects initiated by government has been the target of reducing the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animals to help reduce the incidence of antibiotic resistance, thereby helping to treat zoonotic diseases in humans. The Government set targets in 2017 on the use of antibiotics in animals over the next three years. What progress has there been? What other plans are going forward, as the 2017 project has now ended?

The noble Lord identifies the threat extremely well indeed. The Department of Health works extremely closely with Defra on this exact point. I pay tribute to both the farming community here in the UK and officials at Defra for their work to encourage farmers to stand back from prophylactic use of antibiotics.

My Lords, one of the most important lessons about “one health” from Covid-19 is that we must share more than just surplus vaccines; we must share the capacity to make vaccine. Can the Minister explain why the Government are resisting even a temporary TRIPS waiver when so many world leaders support it?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that we need to massively increase international capacity for vaccine production. The Government are working on a vaccine strategy that will include ideas for doing that. A TRIPS waiver is something we have looked carefully at. It is our strong view that this Government support intellectual property, because it is only through our commitment to intellectual property that we can encourage the kind of massive investment by the private sector necessary to develop vaccines in the first place. For that reason, we remain hesitant about supporting a TRIPS waiver policy.

My Lords, Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar says in his new book that viruses do not change how they transmit between humans and animals, but humanity has become much more mobile. He deplores the pandemic nationalism evident over the last year, saying:

“Only the virus benefits from a pivot towards myopic nationalism because that will keep it circulating for longer. A divided world is a diseased world.”

I thank the Minister for saying what the Government plan to do through their chairmanship of the G7, but can he please confirm the timetable for the delivery of the “one health” approach, including its funding?

My Lords, the “one health” approach is moving through the G7 process at the moment. I am not sure whether a precise timetable exists. I am happy to check to see whether dates are available, and I will write to the noble Baroness accordingly.

My Lords, it is quite clear that the health and scientific world has, not surprisingly, been focused on the pandemic. The FAIRR report published today and previous reports in this area show what a threat to world health there is from antimicrobial resistance. The question is: how much of a priority is this in the Government’s work? I think that is what most speakers have asked. How much money is the department investing in this area this year and in the next five years?

I assure the noble Baroness that it is a massive priority. The threats from both zoonotic transmission and antimicrobial resistance are areas in which Britain has previously shown great international leadership. Through our G7 chairmanship we will continue to take up that mantle. I pay particular tribute to the work of Dame Sally Davies on antimicrobial resistance. She has done an enormous amount, particularly through the Trinity Challenge, to raise awareness and bring together Governments, industry and academia on this matter. I do not have the precise budget to hand, but I will be glad to write to the noble Baroness with any details that are available.

What proportion of infectious diseases in people do the Government estimate to originate in animals? What should be the result of doctors and vets adopting a “one health” approach?

It is the case that 75% of all newly infectious diseases come from animals. Diseases such as HIV began when transmitted from an animal to a person. The Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses are all examples of recent zoonoses. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, the changes in human behaviour are only going to accelerate this. That is why we are so committed to the zoonotic agenda and why vets and those who work with farm animals need to have raised awareness of this threat.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Royal Veterinary College. The Minister has stated the Government’s commitment to “one health”, but ODA cuts have slashed by two-thirds the funding of the UK’s single biggest “one health” programme, the One Health Poultry Hub led by the RVC, which tracks and fights disease emergence from poultry in Asia to combat this vector for a human health pandemic that will inevitably occur. How does the Minister intend to fulfil his commitment to “one health”, and the PM’s at the UN and G7 levels, in light of the Chancellor’s Statement last week? The criteria for restoring the ODA cut show that that will not happen for several years.

My Lords, our contributions to “one health” are partly through our collaborations with foreign Governments, but they also include Defra’s work here in the UK and the contribution of British scientists, such as through the Trinity Challenge that I mentioned. The noble Baroness is right that this is not cost free, and we have to explain the value of this work to the taxpayer. That explanation is easier after a pandemic as massive as the one we have had, but we need to look closely at the value-for-money judgments needed before we make the necessary investments in this agenda.