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Updated: 46 min 51 sec ago

Beyond the pandemic: reduce the risk of animal viruses jumping to humans

Thu, 30/07/2020 - 08:40
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THE PANDEMIC


What should we do?

#1 Reduce the risk of animal
viruses jumping to humans

The pandemic is forcing us to change direction, to rethink what we do
and how we do it. We ask our experts:
where should we go from here? Reduce the risk of animal viruses
jumping to humans

by Professor Bill Sutherland and Dr Silviu Petrovan

SARS-CoV-2 is not the first deadly virus to have jumped from an animal to humans, but it is the first to have swept the globe at such speed and scale. Cambridge zoologists Bill Sutherland and Silviu Petrovan warn that we must dramatically change the way we interact with animals to reduce the risk of this happening again.

The rate at which diseases that jump from animals to humans are emerging is increasing globally. Whereas in the past almost all of these ‘zoonotic’ outbreaks would have been local and short lived, it is easier for them to spread today.

Degradation of the natural environment, more livestock and wild animal farming and trading, urbanisation and associated high human density, increased travel and a globalised world all lead to greater opportunities for the spread of diseases. Fingers may have been pointed at pangolins and bats for COVID-19 but it is these human-caused changes that are driving the problem.  

“We need to improve policy and practice. The risk of another pandemic is all too real”Dr Silviu Petrovan

Just as generals are warned against planning to refight the last battle, we are concerned that suggested measures are often unrealistic (ban wet markets, stop hunting), ineffective (ban trade and risk an increase in illegal trade) or might make some problems worse (banning activities prevents any oversight and could disproportionately impact indigenous local communities that depend on wild meat for protein). This complex problem requires complex solutions.

Moreover, context-specific solutions need to be put in place everywhere. Despite most of these diseases originating in wild animals, many are transmitted to humans via intermediate hosts – and this can mean pets, captive wild animals (such as civets), livestock and feral animals.

We want to improve policy and practice. The risk of another pandemic is all too real. But evidence of what works to reduce this risk is not readily available. We’ve found that practitioners in various areas don’t tend to know about 40% of the possible options when they start making plans. When lives are at stake, that’s an alarming position to be in.

And so, since the pandemic started, under the umbrella of BioRISC (Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s) in Cambridge, we brought together an international team of vets and wildlife experts in all categories of animal – wildlife, captive, feral and domestic – to look at all the major ways diseases with high potential for human-to-human transmission can spillover from animals to humans and then spread.

The results give policymakers and individuals a wide range of options, and are intended to encourage careful consideration of how things can be changed at the national or regional level.

Scanning for options

We use a method called Solution Scanning to look at all the evidence available and we ask experts to identify a range of options to address a problem.

The same method has been used in a previous study of ours to identify 275 ways to reduce the spread of coronavirus following lockdown. Sources of information include the scientific literature, position papers by non-governmental organisations, industry guidelines and experts in different fields.

This time, working with 23 other wildlife experts and veterinarians, we carried out a solution scan of options for preventing future zoonotic epidemics.

We estimate 60% of emerging human diseases are caused by pathogens that jump from animals, and we found seven potential routes by which another human pandemic could arise:

  • direct contact with wildlife, such as wildmeat hunting
  • commercial trade of wild animal products
  • breeding and trade of captive wildlife
  • breeding and trade of domestic animals
  • antimicrobial resistance – especially in relation to intensive farming and pollution
  • pathogen escape or release from laboratories, including bioterrorism
  • intentional creation of life

Each of these routes is complex.

We then focused on measures that can be put in place in society at local, regional and international scales to reduce the risk of another pandemic from each of these routes.

We didn’t consider the development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary medicine options – these are discussed elsewhere.

Where should we go from here?

We came up with 161 ways to reduce the risk of the next pandemic of zoonotic origin. That’s a lot.

But, for a particular situation, the list of potential solutions can quickly be narrowed down based on relevance and practicality – and the most important options will depend on the local and regional context. We haven’t prioritised, but nevertheless some clear front-runners can be identified:

Urgently introduce risk-assessed plans for wildlife markets: ban the trade of some species (e.g. bats) and introduce strict hygiene checks and species separation for live animals and fresh carcasses, including during transport.

Help various countries to improve biosecurity and reduce risks from livestock farming: provide PPE (such as gloves) and training for farm workers, control visitor and vehicle access, separate livestock from other animals with fencing, and protect food and water from contamination.

Regulate the maximum density of animals being housed or transported: cramped conditions for animals create poor hygiene, sickness and mortality, and increase the risk of contamination.

Enforce existing bans and regulate trade: identify animal species or products that are deemed to be high risk for pathogen transmission and work to remove and replace them or license their trade so that stricter hygiene and health checks can be implemented.

Minimise international transport of live livestock: introduce and enforce detailed animal health status checks and limit the movements of live animals across long distances.

Identify and protect areas with high biodiversity value but which are at risk from land use change: changes in habitat features from deforestation or mining can threaten or displace high-risk species. For example, protecting habitats such as bat roosts is important to reduce their displacement or high levels of stress and inadvertent contact with livestock and people.  

Integrate indigenous peoples and local communities into early warning systems of disease emergence: incentivise a switch to lower-risk hunting by promoting lower-risk species alternatives and engage local communities to implement surveillance of animal and human health.

Promote alternatives to animal products, especially for high-risk products: these might include synthetic or plant-based products instead of meat, leather, fur or traditional medicine products.

What’s next?

Our aim is to present the evidence and options, as experts working in different fields, so that policymakers have comprehensive information to help them make better informed decisions. They should certainly not assume the next pandemic will arise in the same way as COVID-19. In fact we need to be acting on a much wider scale to reduce the risk.

We still don’t know enough about certain risks and pathways, so increasing our understanding of pathogen hosts and potential transmission mechanisms between wildlife and livestock, captive-bred animals and humans remains particularly urgent.

Our study has shown that dealing with such a complicated mix of potential sources of infection requires widespread changes to the ways humans and animals interact. We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but we know there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk. Can we improve how we live with animals? Most certainly yes. And we must.

We’re continuing to raise awareness of this work and exploring options for assisting policymakers with turning the list of options into policy.

A preprint of our paper ‘Post COVID-19: a solution scan of options for preventing future zoonotic epidemics’ is available here. We were pleased to see that the work was widely reported in the press not only in English but in other languages, especially Spanish and Portuguese, resulting in nearly 800 downloads of the report in Brazil from one website alone. The work was also discussed in a thought-provoking editorial in The Lancet.

Related topic: listen to Cambridge experts discussing ‘Preparing for Future Pandemics’

Professor James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine; Andres Floto, Professor of Respiratory Biology, Department of Medicine; and Professor Sylvia Richardson, Director, MRC Biostatistics Unit.

Professor Bill Sutherland is committed to improving the use of research in policy and practice. He holds the Miriam Rothschild Chair in Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology and runs BioRISC (Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s) funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation. To coordinate evidence assessment with global teams of experts, he developed Conservation Evidence, which also publishes the annual compendium of evidence What Works in Conservation. He is a Fellow of St Catharine’s College. 

Dr Silviu Petrovan is a qualified vet and a Research Associate at the Department of Zoology. He has been a Director of Conservation for one of the leading UK conservation NGOs, working on wildlife disease surveillance for amphibians and reptiles across the UK, and is also a member of the Conservation Evidence team and editor of What Works in Conservation.


Editor: Jacqueline Garget
Artwork: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

TopBuilt with Shorthand Summary: 

SARS-CoV-2 is not the first deadly virus to have jumped from an animal to humans, but it is the first to have swept the globe at such speed and scale. Cambridge zoologists Bill Sutherland and Silviu Petrovan warn that we must dramatically change the way we interact with animals to reduce the risk of this happening again. First in a new series in which we ask the experts: beyond the pandemic, where should we go from here?

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): St Catharine's CollegeDepartment of ZoologyPeople (our academics and staff): Bill SutherlandSilviu PetrovanSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): Beyond the pandemicCOVID-19pandemicCoronaviruszoonosesvirusinfectious diseaseBiodiversity conservationSection: ResearchNews type: News
Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Vikings had smallpox and may have helped spread the world’s deadliest virus

Thu, 23/07/2020 - 19:30

Smallpox spread from person to person via infectious droplets, killed around a third of sufferers and left another third permanently scarred or blind. Around 300 million people died from it in the 20th century alone before it was officially eradicated in 1980 through a global vaccination effort – the first human disease to be wiped out. 

Now an international team of scientists have sequenced the genomes of newly discovered strains of the killer virus after it was extracted from the teeth of Viking skeletons from sites across northern Europe. The findings are published today in the journal Science.

“We already knew Vikings were moving around Europe and beyond, and we now know they had smallpox. Just as people travelling around the world today quickly spread COVID-19, it is likely Vikings spread smallpox. Only back then, they travelled by ship rather than plane,” said Professor Eske Willerslev in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and St. John’s College, and Director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, who led the study. 

The team found smallpox - caused by the variola virus - in 11 Viking-era burial sites in Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the UK. They also found it in multiple human remains from Öland, an island off the east coast of Sweden with a long history of trade. 

They were able to reconstruct near-complete variola virus genomes for four of the samples. The genetic structure of this earliest-known smallpox strain is different to the modern smallpox virus eradicated in the 20th century.

“There are multiple ways viruses may diverge and mutate into milder or more dangerous strains. This is a significant insight into the steps the variola virus took in the course of its evolution,” said Dr Barbara Mühlemann, formerly at the Centre for Pathogen Evolution at the University of Cambridge, now based at the Institute of Virology at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, and one of the first authors of the report.

Historians believe smallpox may have existed since 10,000 BC but until now there was no scientific proof that the virus was present before the 17th century. It is not known how it first infected humans but, like COVID-19, it is believed to be a zoonotic disease - one that originated in an animal. 

Smallpox was eradicated throughout most of Europe and the United States by the beginning of the 20th century but remained endemic throughout Africa, Asia, and South America. The World Health Organisation launched an eradication programme in 1967 that included contact tracing and mass communication campaigns - all public health techniques that countries have been using to control today’s coronavirus pandemic. But it was the global roll-out of a vaccine that ultimately enabled scientists to stop smallpox in its tracks.  

While it is not clear whether these ancient strains of smallpox were fatal, the Vikings must have died with smallpox in their bloodstream for the scientists to detect it up to 1400 years later. It is also highly probable there were epidemics earlier than these findings.

“While written accounts of disease are often ambiguous, our findings push the date of the confirmed existence of smallpox back by a thousand years,” said Dr Terry Jones at the Centre for Pathogen Evolution at the University of Cambridge and the Institute of Virology at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, and one of the senior authors who led the study.

He added: “To find smallpox so genetically different in Vikings is truly remarkable. No one expected that these smallpox strains existed. It has long been believed that smallpox was in Western and Southern Europe regularly by 600 AD, around the beginning of our samples. We have proved that smallpox was also widespread in Northern Europe. Returning crusaders or other later events have been thought to have first brought smallpox to Europe, but such theories cannot be correct.” 

“Smallpox was eradicated, but another strain could spill over from the animal reservoir tomorrow. What we know in 2020 about viruses and pathogens that affect humans today is just a small snapshot of what has plagued humans historically,” said Willerslev. 

This research is part of a long-term project sequencing 5000 ancient human genomes and their associated pathogens. It was made possible thanks to a scientific collaboration between The Lundbeck Foundation, The Wellcome Trust, The Nordic Foundation, and Illumina Inc. 

Reference

Muhlemann, B. et al. 'Diverse variola virus (smallpox) strains were widespread in northern Europe in the Viking Age. Science, July 2020. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8977

Adapted from a press release by St John’s College, Cambridge.

Scientists have discovered extinct strains of smallpox in the teeth of Viking skeletons – proving for the first time that the killer disease plagued humanity for at least 1400 years. 

Just as people travelling around the world today quickly spread COVID-19, it is likely Vikings spread smallpox. Only back then, they travelled by ship rather than plane.Eske WillerslevThames Valley Archaeological ServicesMassacred 10th century Vikings found in a mass grave at St John’s College, Oxford


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Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Scientists supercharge shellfish to tackle vitamin deficiency in humans

Mon, 20/07/2020 - 08:00

Over two billion people worldwide are nutrient deficient, leading to a wide range of serious health problems. Fortifying food with micronutrients is already an industry standard for enhancing public health but now scientists at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology have teamed up with Cambridge-based company BioBullets to supercharge one of the world’s most healthy and sustainable sources of animal protein: bivalve shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels.

Dr David Aldridge and PhD student David Willer have produced the world’s first microcapsule specially designed to deliver nutrients to bivalves which are beneficial to human health. These “Vitamin Bullets” – manufactured under patent by Aldridge’s company, BioBullets – are tailored for optimal size, shape, buoyancy and to appeal to shellfish.

This breakthrough, described in a study published today in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, is particularly valuable because when we eat bivalves, we consume the entire organism including its gut, meaning that we digest the nutrients which the animals consumed towards the end of their lives. This makes bivalve shellfish the ideal target for nutritional fortification.

In their Cambridge laboratory, the scientists trialled Vitamin A and D fortified microcapsules on over 100 oysters to identify the optimal dose. They also established that this should be fed for 8 hours towards the end of “depuration”, the period in which bivalves are held in cleansing tanks after being harvested.

The team found that fortified oysters delivered around 100 times more Vitamin A, and over 150 times more Vitamin D, than natural oysters. Even more importantly, they dramatically outperformed salmon, one of the best natural sources of these vitamins. The fortified oysters provided more than 26 times more Vitamin A and over four times more Vitamin D than salmon. The scientists found that a serving of just two of their supercharged shellfish provided enough Vitamin A and D to meet human Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDAs). 

Vitamin A and D deficiencies pose a particularly serious public health challenge – in Ghana more than 76% of children are Vitamin A deficient, causing widespread mortality and blindness. In India, 85% of the population is Vitamin D deficient, which causes cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and rickets. Even in the US, over 40% of people are Vitamin D deficient.

David Willer said: “We have demonstrated a cheap and effective way to get micronutrients into a sustainable and delicious source of protein. Targeted use of this technology in regions worst affected by nutrient deficiencies, using carefully selected bivalve species and micronutrients, could help improve the health of millions, while also reducing the harm that meat production is doing to the environment”.

David Aldridge said: “We are very excited about BioBullets’ potential. We are now establishing links with some of the world’s biggest seafood manufacturers to drive a step change in the sustainability and nutritional value of the seafood that we consume.”

Bivalves have a higher protein content than beef, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, and have some of the highest levels of key minerals of all animal foods. Nevertheless, the nutrients that they deliver naturally is unlikely to solve global deficiencies. These shellfish are also highly sustainable to farm, having a far lower environmental footprint than animal meat or fish, and lower even than many plant crops such as wheat, soya, and rice. 

Bivalves are a highly affordable food source when produced at large scale and the global market is rapidly expanding. Production in China alone has grown 1000-fold since 1980 and there is great potential to sustainably expand bivalve aquaculture worldwide, with over 1,500,000 km2 available for sustainable low-cost industry development, particularly around the west coast of Africa and India.

The researchers point out that consumers in poorer regions where vitamin deficiencies are most prevalent are more likely to buy slightly more expensive fortified food than to make additional purchases to take supplement pills. They calculate that fortification adds just $0.0056 to the cost of producing a single oyster.

David Willer is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; and David Aldridge is supported by The University of Cambridge, St Catharine’s College and Corpus Christi College.
 

Reference:

D.F. Willer & D.C. Aldridge, ‘Vitamin bullets. Microencapsulated feeds to fortify shellfish and tackle human nutrient deficiencies’, Frontiers in Nutrition (July 2020). DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00102

Cambridge scientists have developed a new way to fortify shellfish to tackle human nutrient deficiencies which cause severe health problems across the world. The team is now working with major seafood manufacturers to further test their microencapsulation technology, or “Vitamin Bullets”. 

Targeted use of this technology in regions worst affected by nutrient deficiencies ... could help improve the health of millionsDavid WillerImage by Yung-pin Pao from PixabayOystersRead on

Learn more about the work of David Willer and Dr David Aldridge in this feature.


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Learn from the pandemic to prevent environmental catastrophe, scientists argue

Thu, 02/07/2020 - 11:24

The dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic share “striking similarities” with the twin environmental crises of global heating and species extinction, argue a team of scientists and policy experts from the UK and US.

They say that lessons learned the hard way in containing COVID-19 – the need for early intervention to reduce death and economic damage; the curbing of some aspects of people’s lifestyles for the good of all of us – should also be at the heart of averting environmental catastrophe.

“We’ve seen the consequences of delayed action in the fight against COVID-19. The consequences of continued inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction are too grave to contemplate,” said Prof Andrew Balmford, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, Balmford and colleagues argue that the spread of coronavirus shares common characteristics with both global heating and the impending “sixth mass extinction”.

For example, each new COVID-19 case can spawn others and so lead to escalating infection rates, just as hotter climates alter ecosystems, increasing emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause warming. “Both are dangerous feedback loops,” argue the scientists.

The team also draw comparisons of what they term “lagged impacts”. For coronavirus, the delay – or lag – before symptoms materialise means infected people spread the disease before they feel effects and change behaviour.

The researchers equate this with the lag between our destruction of habitat and eventual species extinction, as well as lags between the emissions we pump out and the full effects of global heating, such as sea-level rise. As with viral infection, behaviour change may come too late.

“Like the twin crises of extinction and climate, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic might have seemed like a distant problem at first, one far removed from most people’s everyday lives,” said coauthor Ben Balmford from the University of Exeter.

“But left unchecked for too long, the disease has forced major changes to the way we live. The same will be true of the environmental devastation we are causing, except the consequences could be truly irreversible.”

The authors find parallels in the indifference that has long greeted warnings from the scientific community about both new zoonotic diseases and human-induced shifts in climate and habitat.

“The lagged impacts, feedback loops and complex dynamics of pandemics and environmental crises mean that identifying and responding to these challenges requires governments to listen to independent scientists,” said Dr Brendan Fisher, a coauthor from the University of Vermont. “Such voices have been tragically ignored.”

The similarities between the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and environmental disaster lie not just in their nature but also in their mitigation, say the scientists, who write that “there is no substitute for early action”.

The researchers include an analysis of the timing of lockdown across OECD countries, and conclude that if it had come just a week earlier then around 17,000 lives in the UK (up to 21 May 2020) would have been saved, and nearly 45,000 in the US.

They say that, just as delayed lockdown cost thousands of lives, delayed climate action that gives us 2oC of warming rather than 1.5 will expose an estimated extra 62-457 million people – mainly the world’s poorest – to “multi-sector climate risks” such as drought, flooding and famine.

Similarly, conservation programmes are less likely to succeed the longer they are delayed. “As wilderness disappears we see an accelerating feedback loop, as a given loss of habitat causes ever-greater species loss,” explained Princeton Professor and co-author David Wilcove.    

The scientists point out that delayed action resulting in more COVID-19 deaths will also cost those nations more in economic growth, according to IMF estimates, just as hotter and more disruptive climates will curtail economic prosperity.

Intervening to contain both the pandemic and the environmental crises requires decision-makers and citizens to act in the interests of society as a whole, argue the researchers.

“In the COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen young and working age people sacrificing education, income and social connection primarily for the benefit of older and more vulnerable people,” said co-author Prof Dame Georgina Mace from UCL.

“To stem the impacts of climate change and address biodiversity loss, wealthier and older adults will have to forgo short-term material extravagance for the benefit of the present-day poor and future generations. It’s time to keep our end of the social bargain,” Mace said.

Cambridge’s Andrew Balmford added: “Scientists are not inventing these environmental threats, just as they weren’t inventing the threat of a pandemic such as COVID-19. They are real, and they are upon us.”

COVID-19 is comparable to climate and extinction emergencies, say scientists from the UK and US – all share features such as lagged impacts, feedback loops, and complex dynamics.

The consequences of continued inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction are too grave to contemplateAndrew BalmfordBalinda O'NealUS National Guard working to extinguish wildfires in Alaska


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Human interactions with wild and farmed animals must change dramatically to reduce risk of another deadly pandemic

Thu, 25/06/2020 - 10:10

The authors of the new report argue that well-meaning but simplistic actions such as complete bans on hunting and wildlife trade, ‘wet markets’ or consumption of wild animals may be unachievable and are not enough to prevent another pandemic. Measures like these can be difficult to implement so must be carefully planned to prevent proliferation of illegal trade, or alienation and increasing hardship for local communities across the world who depend on wild animals as food.

Zoonotic diseases of epidemic potential can also transmit from farmed wildlife (such as civets) and domesticated animals (as exemplified by swine flu and avian flu), with greater risks occurring where humans, livestock and wildlife closely interact. 

Compiled by a team of 25 international experts, the study considered all major ways that diseases with high potential for human to human transmission can jump from animals to humans (termed zoonotic diseases). The authors say that dealing with such a complicated mix of potential sources of infection requires widespread changes to the ways humans and animals interact.

“A lot of recent campaigns have focused on banning the trade of wild animals, and dealing with wild animal trade is really important yet it’s only one of many potential routes of infection. We should not assume the next pandemic will arise in the same way as COVID-19; we need to be acting on a wider scale to reduce the risk,” said Professor William Sutherland in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the BioRISC Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, who headed the research.

Potential ways another human pandemic could arise include: wildlife farming, transport, trade and consumption; international or long distance trade of livestock; international trade of exotic animals for pets; increased human encroachment into wildlife habitats; antimicrobial resistance - especially in relation to intensive farming and pollution; and bioterrorism.

Some of the ways to reduce the risk of another pandemic are relatively simple, such as encouraging smallholder farmers to keep chickens or ducks away from people. Others, like improving biosecurity and introducing adequate veterinary and hygiene standards for farmed animals across the world, would require significant financial investment on a global scale. 

The 161 options include:
• Laws to prevent the mixing of different wild animals or the mixing of wild and domestic animals during transport and at markets;
• Increase switching to plant-based foods to reduce consumption of, and demand for, animal products;
• Safety protocols for caving in areas with high bat density, such as use of waterproof coveralls and masks;
• Improve animal health on farms by limiting stocking densities and ensuring high standards of veterinary care.

“We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk. Most zoonotic pathogens are not capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, but some can cause major epidemics. Preventing their transfer to humans is a major challenge for society and also a priority for protecting public health,” said Dr Silviu Petrovan, a veterinarian and wildlife expert from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. 

“Wild animals aren’t the problem - they don’t cause disease emergence. People do. At the root of the problem is human behaviour, so changing this provides the solution,” said Professor Andrew Cunningham, Deputy Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the study.

Solutions were focused on measures that can be put in place in society at local, regional and international scales. The study did not consider the development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary medicine options. It does not offer recommendations, but a set of options to help policy-makers and practitioners think carefully about possible courses of action. 

All categories of animal - wildlife, captive, feral, and domestic - were included in the study. The focus was on diseases, particularly viruses, which could rapidly become epidemics through high rates of human-to-human transmission once they have jumped from an animal. This excludes some well-known zoonotic diseases such as rabies and Lyme disease that require continuous transmission from animals.

The report is currently being peer reviewed. The findings were generated by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide range of sources to identify a range of options for a given problem. Sources included the scientific literature, position papers by Non-Governmental Organisations, industry guidelines, experts in different fields, and the expertise of the study team itself.

This work was funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation, Arcadia, and MAVA.

Reference (unpublished report available as preprint)
Petrovan, S. et al: Post COVID-19: a solution scan of options for preventing future zoonotic epidemics. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/5JX3G. 
 

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

 

Compiled by a team of international wildlife and veterinary experts, a new study has identified seven routes by which pandemics could occur and 161 options for reducing the risk. It concludes that widespread changes to the way we interact with animals are needed; solutions that only address one issue – such as the trade in wild animals – are not enough.

We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk.Silviu PetrovanPig farm by Harriet BartlettPig farming


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Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries

Tue, 12/05/2020 - 09:14
Shorthand Story: YZ2JHMaNw3Shorthand Story Head: Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries " + "ipt>"); } })(navigator, 'userAgent', 'appVersion', 'script', document); //--> Shorthand Story Body:  TwitterFacebook Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries

Researchers have found that adult skates have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage, using a type of cartilage stem cell. Human cartilage has very limited capacity for repair, and the finding may lead to new stem cell treatments for human cartilage injuries.

Published today in the journal eLife, the study identified a new type of cartilage stem cell in the skeleton of adult skates, Leucoraja erinacea. These cells enable skates to keep making new cartilage throughout their life, so their skeleton can keep growing and any cartilage injuries can be repaired.

Current stem cell therapies for cartilage repair in humans are not very effective because lab-engineered cartilage from adult stem cells has a tendency to start turning into bone. Previously, no animal has been found to have the ability to make new cartilage during adulthood that stays as cartilage, rather than turning into bone, or have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage.

“Cartilage injury in humans – for example because of osteoarthritis or a sports injury – is a huge problem, and a huge economic burden,” said Dr Andrew Gillis from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, USA, who led the research.

“We are tremendously excited to find that skates can spontaneously repair injured cartilage, and to have an insight into how this happens. It paves the way for developing better treatments to repair cartilage injuries in humans, which are currently very limited in their effectiveness.”

Cartilage cells within the fin cartilage of a skate hatchling

Cartilage cells within the fin cartilage of a skate hatchling

The cartilage stem cells, called chondroprogenitors, were found in the fibrous tissue, called the perichondrium, which wraps around cartilage in the adult skate. By labelling these stem cells with a fluorescent marker, the researchers could trace the cells they created - and found that they ended up as cartilage in the adult skeleton. These cells were also shown to express genes that control cartilage development.

Fin cartilage of a skate embryo, showing expression of the gene encoding collagen (green) in cartilage cells

Fin cartilage of a skate embryo, showing expression of the gene encoding collagen (green) in cartilage cells

This study found that embryonic development of cartilage in the skate closely mirrors that in humans, but unique features of the adult skate skeleton – including the presence of cartilage stem cells in the perichondrium – facilitate the continued growth of cartilage throughout life.

Most cartilage in humans is formed as the skeleton first develops, and this is later replaced by bone. By the time adulthood is reached, cartilage only exists in a few places in the body such as the joints. Human cartilage has no blood or nerve supply, and it has no resident stem cell population, so it has very limited capacity for repair.

Osteoarthritis is a debilitating deterioration of joint cartilage, with symptoms ranging from stiffness and joint pain to complete immobility. It can severely impact quality of life, and has an extremely high economic burden, so there is great interest in identifying novel therapeutic strategies to promote joint cartilage repair.

The researchers warn that taking ‘shark cartilage’ tablets should not be considered as a cure for joint pain or any other illness, as there is no scientific evidence that they work.

Their next step is to understand the molecular mechanisms that allow this specialised stem cell type to make cartilage as a stable tissue in adult skate. They hope this will allow them to manipulate human stem cells to behave in a similar way, and enhance their ability to generate stable cartilage for transplantation and repair.

This research was funded by Wellcome, the Royal Society, the Isaac Newton Trust and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.

Reference: Marconi, A. et al: ‘Adult chondrogenesis and spontaneous cartilage repair in the skate, Leucoraja erinacea’, ELife, May 2020, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.53414

Image credits: Andrew Gillis

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Researchers have found that adult skates have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage, using a type of cartilage stem cell. Human cartilage has very limited capacity for repair, and the finding may lead to new stem cell treatments for human cartilage injuries.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ZoologySchool of Biological SciencesExternal Affiliations: Marine Biological LaboratoryWoods HolePeople (our academics and staff): Andrew GillisSection: ResearchNews type: News
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Study identifies 275 ways to reduce spread of coronavirus following lockdown

Wed, 15/04/2020 - 14:52

The study identified 275 ways to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. Medical possibilities were not considered. It does not offer recommendations: a shortlist of the most appropriate options for specific regions and contexts should be considered in the context of their likely effectiveness, cost, practicality and fairness.

“There’s increasing pressure to re-open the economy and get people back to work and out of isolation. But if we return to operating as we did before the pandemic, there will be a second wave of the virus. All activities will need to be considered individually, and phased back in carefully, depending on the risk they pose to spreading the virus,” said Professor William Sutherland in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who led the study.

Strict lockdown measures are proving to be effective in controlling the spread of coronavirus in many countries, but are putting a major strain on the population’s mental and physical health, and on the economy. Mass vaccination is not likely before the second half of 2021.

Measures such as physical distancing, enhancing personal hygiene and reducing contamination are likely to remain central elements of all control strategies for some time. The study, which has not been peer reviewed, lists the range of practical options available to achieve these measures, including:

• Café owners could open outdoor areas only at first, and wipe down tables - spaced well apart - after each customer.
• Access to public parks could be restricted to different age groups at different times of day, with gates left open so they don’t need to be touched, and users asked to walk on the right side of the pavement or clockwise around large open spaces.
• Petrol stations could become fully contactless, with attendants serving customers who pay from inside their car.
• Patients with doctors’ appointments could be asked to wait in their car outside the surgery until called in.
• School classes could be split into smaller groups with dedicated teachers, who only go into school one week in every three.

“It’s basically about how to stop people hanging around together, and phasing in activities starting with the ones that are the safest. Making this happen will be up to the people responsible for every element of society,” says Sutherland. 

Identifying, assessing and applying a wide range of options could enable some of the stricter lockdown conditions to be lifted earlier, and make the transition period shorter, say the researchers. The ultimate aim of a successful transition is to achieve ‘Resilient Normality’ - a new way of existing in the world that makes us less susceptible to future pandemics. 

Information was gathered by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide range of sources to identify a range of options for a given problem. Sources included experts in a variety of fields, crowdsourcing on social media, and published research. 

“In starting a process of decision-making or guidance-production, it’s sensible to be aware of the range of possible options. Policy makers and practitioners must decide which strategies are appropriate to phase in at different stages of the transition from lockdown,” said Sutherland. 

The list of potential options is available online at https://covid-19.biorisc.com

This work was a collaboration between BioRISC (the Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), Conservation Evidence in the Department of Zoology, and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.  It was funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation, Arcadia and MAVA.

Reference (preprint)
Sutherland, W.J. et al: ‘Informing management of lockdowns and a phased return to normality: a Solution Scan of non-pharmaceutical options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission.’ 2020. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/CA5RH

 

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

 

 

Phased re-opening of schools, businesses and open spaces should be considered alongside a range of practical ways to keep people physically apart, say the authors of a new study on how lockdown can be eased without a resurgence of coronavirus infections. 

Policy makers and practitioners must decide which strategies are appropriate to phase in at different stages of the transition from lockdownWilliam SutherlandMabel Amber from Pixabay


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