July 27, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how fragile we are—not just as a province or as a nation, but as a global community. More than 3.8 million1 people worldwide have died from COVID-19 and more than 177 million cases have been recorded as we compile this report. And while some countries are turning the corner, others are facing a different reality; the virus continues to mutate, further increasing the risk of widespread infections in vulnerable populations. The threat remains real for us all—continued community transmissions and health systems under pressure.
The encroachment of civilization is pushing nature to its limits by destroying and degrading diverse ecosystems, ultimately removing natural buffers, and expanding the interface between wildlife and people where pandemics emerge. Scientists estimate that more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.2 In addition to COVID-19, diseases like influenza, Salmonella, and norovirus are examples of zoonotic diseases—diseases that can be shared between animals and people.
No one person, organization, or sector can address issues at the animal-human-environment interface alone. The “One Health” approach is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach— working at the local, regional, national, and global levels—with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes. Its foundation is the recognition that the health and wellbeing of humans, animals and the environment are intricately linked. By promoting collaboration across all sectors, a One Health approach can achieve the best health outcomes for people, animals, and plants in a shared environment. While it’s not a new concept, it has become more important in recent years because of the changing interactions between people, animals, plants, and our environment.
Genome BC is keen to foster a greater understanding of this interplay between animal and human pathogens and its impacts across sectors such as human health, agriculture, and the environment—identifying where there are opportunities for genomic solutions.
Through our funding of specific One Health projects such as SARS, norovirus, avian influenza, and COVID-19 in mink, the goal is to provide powerful cross-disciplinary surveillance tools to help identify and mitigate risks to human health and agriculture and defend against them.
Genome BC’s One Health work supports the development of a coordinated and collaborative approach to combat infectious diseases that travel from humans from animals. It draws upon BC’s expert scientific and sector capacity to improve the health and well being of animals, people, and their environment to strengthen BC’s health, population, environment, and agriculture sectors.
Monitoring animal health and COVID-19
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates there is potential for mutation, not only within the human population, but also within animal populations that interact with humans. Farmed mink are of particular interest since they are highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and, in Europe, have also been shown to transmit the virus back to humans.
The transmission of the virus to and from mink has created a specific opportunity to pilot a One Health project, overcoming both scientific and collaborative challenges to address current and future threats.
The project will develop novel genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 within mink as a critical dimension of managing this pandemic and building preparedness for the emergence of future viruses.
The One Health approach is inherently difficult not only due to logistical reasons such as sampling and transport, but also institutional challenges. This project focuses on the development and refinement of shared diagnostic protocols for the detection of COVID-19 in animal reservoirs. These protocols will facilitate the surveillance of future emerging infectious diseases and a collective approach to dealing with them.
The project team is a cross governmental One Health unit including key leaders from BC’s Ministry of Health (through the BCCDC) and BC’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Together the group can respond to the threat of viral transmission between human and mink, and build the necessary capacity, knowledge, and interagency collaboration required to effectively address zoonotic One Health threats.
1. COVID-19 deaths as of June 17, 2021 https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
This article appears in Genome BC’s 2020/21 Annual Report.
View the whole report here.