The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the seriousness of zoonotic diseases – those passed from animals to humans. But GCC countries are no strangers to such outbreaks.
In 2019, about 17 per cent of the reported global zoonotic disease outbreaks occurred in the GCC region, despite being home to only 0.6 per cent of the global livestock population. All were far less serious than Covid-19, but that is little solace.
To improve, the ministries of agriculture in the region need to act in an integrated and centralised manner.
Zoonotic diseases were a growing problem, accounting for about 60 per cent of human infectious diseases, 2.5 billion cases of illness, and 2.7 million deaths each year – even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition to the impact on humans, commerce, travel, and the wider economy, these diseases poses a substantial threat to food security, reducing the global annual animal production by about 20 per cent according to estimates.
Urbanisation, global warming, and other trends will likely increase the number and impact of zoonotic diseases. The problem is significant in the GCC because of its legacy of herding and the need to sacrifice millions of livestock each year. Those conditions, combined with basic animal disease control systems and processes, create an environment that is conducive to future outbreaks.
Governments in the region can take a big leap forward by creating an interdisciplinary and cross-sector approach to predict, detect, control, and counter zoonotic diseases.
The approach requires the five following elements:
Design and activate an animal disease control institutional framework: The first element is to design an institutional framework and get it operating. Agriculture ministries need to establish a dedicated animal disease control (ADC) body, which can supervise and implement all animal health and welfare policies and oversee the response effort during outbreaks. The ADC body should be led by an autonomous chief veterinary officer. It should include consultative committees with other government entities, such as ministries of health, municipalities, and other authorities, to coordinate emergency plans and respond to outbreaks.
Develop an animal disease control infrastructure: The second element is for governments to build an integrated network of infrastructure, consisting of quarantine facilities, veterinary laboratories, and disease control centres (DCCs). Permanent DCCs should mirror national livestock herds and be responsible for monitoring and analysing the national animal health situation, identifying and investigating potential threats, and raising an alarm in the event of outbreaks. When outbreaks occur, permanent DCCs should be supplemented by temporary DCCs in affected areas, along with rapid response teams to coordinate an immediate response.
Adopt disease control technologies: The third element is to use technology so that governments can become more proactive and develop effective, tailored responses. Today, only 0.01 per cent of potential zoonoses have been researched and identified, which explains why most efforts are geared toward minimising damage after a disease has broken out.
Machine-learning algorithms and prediction software can anticipate the location of future outbreaks – and people at the highest risk of being infected. Risk-based surveillance systems, disease detection drones, and animal traceability solutions can all help track emerging diseases. National health information databases can capture, store, and analyse animal disease-related data, identify trends, raise alerts, and simulate disease outbreak events. Governments can develop more effective responses if they have this information available.
Cooperate across borders: The fourth element is to develop and deploy disease control plans to coordinate and unify efforts internationally among GCC countries and beyond. Such cooperation is necessary as diseases do not respect national borders. Regional collaboration will enable the detection of outbreaks earlier and make the most efficient use of available resources.
Engage the private sector: The fifth element is for governments to engage the private sector and take advantage of its expertise and resources. During the Covid-19 outbreak, multinational companies repurposed some of their facilities to produce vital goods to respond to the pandemic. Cooperation with the private sector efforts can be effective in terms of preventing or containing zoonotic disease outbreaks. For example, the US government’s cooperation with biotechnology equipment and reagent suppliers helped stem a zoonotic disease outbreak that started in California in 2002 within 11 months of initial detection, compared to an initial projections of three years.
GCC governments need an integrated approach to anticipate and fend off future zoonotic pandemics. In this way, GCC governments can become more effective at animal disease control and mitigate risks of another pandemic.
Salim Ghazaly and Roger Rabbat are partners and Ahmed Mokhtar is a principal with Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network