The 103rd Dies Natalis is to take place on 9 March. Online, this time, due to the global outbreak of COVID-19. Wageningen University & Research is also affected by the pandemic and is working on preventing future outbreaks in different ways. Experts discuss this topic on 9 March during the celebration entitled Pandemic Prevention, Prediction and Preparedness. One of these experts is Wim van der Poel, research leader ‘Emerging and Zoonotic Viruses’.
Do we know what animal transmitted COVID-19?
‘Yes, and no. The human strain of the virus is 88-96 per cent similar to a coronavirus found in the Chinese horseshoe bat. So, not entirely the same. We think there was an intermediate host, another animal that transferred the virus to humans in the wild or at the Wuhan wet market. However, we do not know what animal that may have been.’
Are the bats all sick now?
‘No, not at all. Bats are barely impacted by the disease. In fact, most animals are unaffected by COVID-19. Humans have the ill-luck to be susceptible to this virus, as are minks and cats. And hamsters, we now know. This susceptibility has to do with our cells, which have the ideal receptacles to allow virus particles to enter, and enzymes that transport the virus through the body.’
So, this pandemic is a question of bad luck?
‘In part, yes. There are also zoonoses (viruses that are transferred from animals to humans, ed.) that barely cause any illness in humans, such as avian influenza and the swine flu. In such cases, it is mostly the people who work with the animals that suffer the effects, such as eye issues found in livestock farmers due to the H7N7 bird flu. The fact that COVID is airborne is relevant. This makes it much more contagious than a virus such as Ebola, which is transmitted through blood and faeces. COVID is also more contagious than the first SARS virus of 2003.’
In what way is the corona pandemic not a matter of bad luck?
‘Our collective lifestyle is conducive to a virus such as this. As the world population increases, humans and animals live closer together. Seventy per cent of all emerging viruses that affect humans are zoonoses. Moreover, we travel more and more, which means diseases can spread faster. Global warming created a larger habitat for insects, and with it, an increased risk of infection by viruses that are transmitted by insects. Zika, for example, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, and the West-Nile Virus, that was reported in the Netherlands for the first time last year.’
It sounds as if we should prepare for more pandemics?
‘The honest answer is: yes. But, this does not mean we can not act. COVID took us by surprise, especially in how rapidly it spread. We can prevent animals from getting sick and from infecting each other and humans when they get sick. This starts with sustainable livestock farming. We must let go of monoculture and start to perceive agriculture as a cycle in which farmers keep some animals as well as cultivating crops. This will generate a much better, self-balancing system. If you keep many animals of the same species, they may become extremely susceptible to a virus because they have never been exposed to similar viruses that occur in nature. The same is true for plants.’
That may help here. But we can’t influence the market in Wuhan?
‘That is, indeed, difficult. At Asian wet markets, live animals are near slaughtered animals and food that humans consume. This is a toxic mix for the spread of diseases. We must address this issue internationally, but while our influence is limited, we must also focus on preparedness. This is why we are currently working on ERRAZE@WUR. Wageningen has significant expertise in the domain of human and animal health, nature, agriculture and food safety. We want to combine this expertise to produce a model that policymakers can use to determine their strategy in future pandemics.’
What is your role in preventing new pandemics?
‘I have extensive knowledge on the emergence and transmission of zoonoses, but more is required. We must also learn how a virus may be controlled at an early stage, and this requires insight into human behaviour. Moreover, we would like to have access to vaccines much more rapidly than is now the case. Within ERRAZE@WUR, we discuss vaccine platforms: a basis for a new vaccine that can rapidly be adjusted to the virus that is active at any time. There are currently several knowledge centres in Europe that are developing instruments to prevent pandemics. Wageningen is involved. I want to pool as much expertise as possible. Because one thing is for sure: never again do we want to be taken by surprise by a virus such as COVID-19.’