11 Oct 2022
Independent Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Pandemics: Origins, Prevention, and Response
The Independent Task Force on COVID-19 and other Pandemics announced that their report “Pandemic Origins and a One Health Approach to Preparedness and Prevention: Solutions Based on SARS-CoV-2 and Other RNA Viruses” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Independent Task Force chair, Dr Gerald T. Keusch of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory and Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research at Boston University said that “The world has largely failed to meet the challenge to be better prepared to prevent or respond adequately enough to the next pandemic, whatever the etiology. Our Task Force believes that the best way to address risk factors for future pandemics is a One Health approach that balances and optimises the health of people, animals, and ecosystems.”
The Independent Task Force focused on scientific findings before and during the pandemic, and a historical review of multiple previous RNA virus outbreaks to identify critical intervention points to interrupt zoonotic transmission and translates this knowledge into recommendations based on a One Health approach to prevent or mitigate an outbreak, and if necessary, to respond rapidly to prevent epidemic or pandemic spread.
Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Dr Danielle Anderson, a Research Scientist at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Peter Doherty Institute for Immunity and Infection (Doherty Institute), is a member of the Independent Task Force. Dr Anderson explained that the COVID-19 pandemic introduced or highlighted scientific disciplines, such as virology and epidemiology, to the broader community.
"Although the ‘lessons learned’ are certainly not new to scientists, it is our responsibility to ensure that these lessons and our recommendations are better understood and are more readily embraced and acted upon to protect communities, animals and ecosystems now and in the future,” Dr Anderson added.
Background of the Task Force
The emergence of animal-origin (zoonotic) RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2, whether from wildlife, livestock, or domestic animals, is an urgent and growing threat to public health. Understanding how SARS-CoV-2 and other RNA virus outbreaks originate can guide how we can more effectively prevent, mitigate, or respond to future emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). Increasing outbreaks in recent decades have been driven by many factors, including human and livestock population growth coupled with expanding human-animal-environment interfaces, changing patterns of land use, climate change, globalised travel, and trade. These outbreaks have common characteristics, including zoonotic spillover from an animal reservoir host to humans, with or without involvement of another animal transmission host. These events highlight the importance of a One Health approach to design relevant, feasible, and implementable solutions to prevent, mitigate, and respond rapidly to future outbreaks.
The Independent Task Force is a group of internationally renowned scientists with diverse disciplinary expertise in human, animal, and public health, virology, epidemiology, wildlife biology, ecology, and EIDs. Twelve members were convened in June 2020 as a Task Force within the Lancet COVID-19 Commission. In November 2021, with the addition of two new expert members, they formed the Independent Task Force to assess available evidence on what drove the origins and early spread of COVID-19 and provide evidence-based recommendations to reduce the impact of and improve responses to outbreaks. A critical review of the literature, interviews with other scientists, and extensive discussions culminated in the present PNAS report.
The Independent Task Force Report shows that:
- Animal RNA viruses, including coronaviruses, have a long history of crossing species barriers to humans. The report provides a historic timeline of estimated origin dates for major coronavirus outbreaks affecting people or livestock and highlights coronaviruses that represent a growing risk to both human and animal health.
- The risk of pandemics emerging increases when people and animals interact closely in new settings driven by land use and climate change, environmental degradation, the wildlife trade, population growth, and economic pressure. Evidence indicates that most new zoonotic outbreaks have wildlife or livestock origins. The report provides recommendations that target high-risk animal-human interfaces to prevent or mitigate the risk of future spillovers. An important strategy is ‘Smart Surveillance’ and sampling programs which have proven helpful for disease outbreak forecasting and to guide strategies to reduce risks at the source.
- Substantial newly published scientific evidence reviewed in the PNAS Perspective report strongly indicates that COVID-19 originated via a pathway similar to SARS-CoV, involving spillover from bats to intermediate animal hosts, then to people within the wildlife trade, leading to the first known cluster of COVID-19 in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The Task Force finds no verifiable or credible evidence to support the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was created in or released from a laboratory (See Table S.6. in Supporting Information: http://www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.2202871119/-/DCSupplemental)
- Efforts to control and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic were hindered in many countries by politics, misinformation and disinformation, and a growing anti-science/anti-vaccine movement.
- The importance of critically evaluating the potential of a zoonotic link to wildlife is that it leads to implementable One Health-oriented changes in policy and practice that can reduce the likelihood of similar occurrences in the future. Importantly, this presents no conflict with continuous efforts to improve laboratory and field biosafety and biosecurity.
The Independent Task Force Report makes the following recommendations:
(1) “Smart Surveillance” to identify high-threat potential pathogens.
Targeting surveillance to people, wildlife, and domestic animals within emerging disease hot spots; improving methodologies for safe surveillance; and innovating a risk assessment framework to provide early warning of pathogens most likely to emerge. The benefits of Smart Surveillance conducted by trained personnel using rigorous protocols to maximise safety and security far outweigh risks and provide critical data for research and development of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and better early warning systems, and inform One Health strategies for prevention and response.
(2) Preparedness and translational research.
Investing in R&D for innovative and broad-spectrum diagnostics, antiviral and vaccine strategies for priority pathogens based on data from ‘Smart Surveillance’; streamlining approaches to build capacity for clinical trials, licensure, and manufacture of medical countermeasures; and understanding the pathogenesis of potential high-threat pathogens to guide new therapeutic strategies.
(3) Reduce the drivers for spillover risk and spread.
Working with communities and countries on the frontline of disease emergence to understand epidemiological, value chain, and behavioural drivers of EID emergence; implementing risk reduction strategies; developing incentives to minimise human-wildlife contact at interfaces in rural areas and commercial markets; and strengthening awareness of the emerging disease-linked health impacts and costs of land use and climate change to provide incentives for sustainable development.
(4) Counter misinformation and disinformation about the prevention and control of emerging diseases.
Interdisciplinary research on what drives the emergence, spread and public acceptance of misinformation and disinformation in order to develop robust counter-mechanisms; develop strategies to counter distrust of science and expert advice, including creating organisations to support scientists under threat arising from disinformation and politically-motivated attacks; designing and promoting programs to improve public understanding of the scientific method and where to find trusted evidence-based scientific information.
(5) Strengthen One Health governance and science.
Creating an inclusive, multi-stakeholder One Health-based governance framework at local, regional, national and international levels for pandemic preparedness and response; increasing funding for cross-disciplinary, collaborative One Health research; learning from indigenous knowledge; participation of civil society and engagement of public and private sector expertise; and efforts to educate new generations concerning the scientific method and reliable sources of information.