One Health is a unique and interdisciplinary approach that aims to unify human, animal and planetary health. The promise of One Health is to prevent outbreaks, address future health risks and other challenges such as food and water safety and antimicrobial resistance. Simply put, this approach aims to integrate human, veterinary, and environmental health knowledge to tackle the public health challenges of the 21st century.
by Simone Graven, Clara MacNaughton, Mélanie Schmutz and Laetitia Thieren
Covid-19 has changed the world. The disease Covid-19 is caused by the Sars-Cov-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. Three years after the pandemic was declared, more than 6.5 million people worldwide had died from the coronavirus. Additionally, it was estimated that within one year of the pandemic (from March 2020 to April 2021), Covid-19 had caused 32 million DALYs (years lost due to disability or death) worldwide. By early 2023, it was estimated that the cost of Long Covid could amount to a staggering $3.7 trillion for the US alone. This pandemic has once again reminded humanity that it is part of a complex ecosystem and that everything is interconnected. This highlights the need for an approach that embraces this complexity in a holistic way, such as One Health.
The need for a holistic approach
One Health is a unique and interdisciplinary approach that aims to unify human, animal and planetary health. The promise of One Health is to prevent outbreaks, address future health risks and other challenges such as food and water safety and antimicrobial resistance. Simply put, this approach aims to integrate human, veterinary, and environmental health knowledge to tackle the public health challenges of the 21st century. One Health holds high promises and aims to achieve great impacts by increasing communication, transparency, data availability and sharing, and engagement between the three sectors. In this short blog post, we aim to explore the potential of the One Health approach in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and address the question “Could the Covid-19 pandemic have been prevented if the concept of One Health had been widely adopted?”
The cruciality of communication and data sharing between disciplines
As experts in the field have pointed out, there was poor collaboration and communication between human, animal, and environmental health scientists during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each field worked in isolation, leading to inefficient management of data resources. For example, knowledge of SARS viruses is widespread within veterinary medicine. Better communication between veterinary and human medicine could have potentially improved [CH3] predictions and the seamless implementation of preventive measures. Veterinarians had gained considerable experience with coronaviruses in previous years, but there was little interest in the lessons learned from fighting a coronavirus epidemic among swines. Although a lot of data was already available on SARS viruses, the information was not efficiently shared among scientific disciplines and countries.
Going back to our question whether One Health could have prevented the Covid-19 pandemic, the answer is multifaceted, as many factors influence the potential success of One Health in addressing health threats and pandemics such as Covid-19. However, we have learned that there are two essential conditions for success: (1) good communication and engagement between scientific disciplines, and (2) sharing and access to data. According to experts, if these two conditions had been better established, we could have responded better and reduced the spread of Covid-19. While we could not have prevented the outbreak of Sars-Cov-2, effective implementation of the One Health approach could have reduced the likelihood of a zoonotic outbreak and the rapid global spread of the virus. Therefore, One Health could potentially have reduced the manifold consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic mentioned above. There are undoubtedly challenges to implementing such an approach, as different organisations may have different agendas and priorities. It will require communication and collaboration among scientists, as well as between science and policy, both at national and international levels.
The way forward
Looking ahead, experts agree on the need to overcome the challenges associated with One Health and implement the approach in order to help decrease risks of future pandemics. As climate change accelerates, the threat of zoonoses and disease outbreaks is increasing. As noted above, human, animal, and environmental health are closely interlinked, and One Health is deemed a necessary and realistic way to reduce health risks. As stated by the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught all of us many painful lessons. One of the most important is that we can only truly make the world safer with a One Health approach that addresses the intimate links between the health of humans, animals and our environment – and especially by addressing the existential threat of climate change.”