WHO chief: Brace for ‘disease X’

“Approximately 70 percent of all emerging and reemerging pathogens are zoonotic, and we don’t know when the next threat, the next disease X will emerge.”

This statement was made by Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the 27th WHO Tripartite Annual Executive Committee Meeting on Animal Health on Feb. 17, 2021.

The meeting coincided with the Searca Online Learning and Virtual Engagement through the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture.

For the online forum, the Philippine-based Searca convened animal-disease experts from the Philippines, Australia and the United Kingdom in an online forum that delved into “Livestock Diseases and Zoonoses: How Secure are Biosecurity Measures?”


SEARCA Director Glenn Gregorio said the forum aimed to highlight specific concrete and practical actions on the ground to disseminate and promote these to stakeholders in the agriculture sector and the general public.

Defining zoonoses as naturally transmissible infections from animals to humans, University of London Prof. Richard Kock noted that when this happens, there is usually an animal reservoir that leads to the infections.

Kock said samples of human pathogens that evolve from wildlife source organisms are influenza A, human immunodeficiency virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, rabies and dengue.

He added that emerging zoonoses are mostly associated with tropical and sub-tropical climates, which could also mean that the main burden of zoonoses is in developing countries.

“Disease emergence can be classified as a cost of development as it has social, economic and trade impacts, which are costly as what can be seen with the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic,” Kock said.

He added that conditions created in domestic-animal production systems and human landscapes provide opportunities for pathogen jumping and evolution, amplification and spread, directly or through livestock, to humans.

According to the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Animal Industry (DA-BAI) the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has reported that every Filipino consumes an average of 28.8 kg of meat annually; thus, making the livestock industry a priority focus of the DA-BAI.

Anthony Bucad, DA-BAI Disease Control Section chief, said the DA-BAI has been implementing legislation and policies that push the livestock sector to the top of government priorities ,adding that an animal-disease reporting mechanism was formed to improve the surveillance system in the country in early detection of diseases and monitoring of disease outbreaks.

He added that border-control policies are in place such as the “Pre-Border Measures for the Export of Meat and Meat Products to the Philippines since 2006” (DA Administrative Order 16, Series of 2006) and “Importation Procedures for Live Animals” (DA Memorandum Circular 12, Series of 2017).

In addition to DA-BAI National Biosecurity Guidelines of the Philippines, which is being drafted, Bucad said awareness campaigns such as the “Sampung Utos ng Biosecurity” are also implemented to improve knowledge and understanding of the basic principles of biosecurity to prevent disease events both in a commercial or backyard setting.

He added that other campaigns carried out include emergency preparedness plans for rabies, avian influenza, African swine fever (ASF) and foot and mouth disease, while capacity-building activities are also conducted for local counterparts to help DA-BAI with its mandate of animal-disease prevention and control.

Bucad appealed to the public to cooperate in animal-disease control and prevention and advised citizens to coordinate with local government authorities if an animal disease breaks out in their community.

Tamsin Barnes, a University of Queensland, Australia veterinary epidemiology senior research fellow, said part of what makes biosecurity measures effective would be the human-behavior component.

Barnes shared her experience in a project, which introduced practical biosecurity measures that helped farmers keep their swine from contracting ASF.

She said the project showed enhanced awareness and understanding among the community, which is essential, and a group-level approach is beneficial.

“The scientific principles of biosecurity are very important, but so too is the human-behavior component. We need scientists, social scientists and all community members to work together to enable greater potential for biosecurity measures to be adopted, and to continue to be used in the longer term to improve animal health and human livelihoods,” Barnes added.