The U.S. threat to cut its funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) poses existential threats to public human health and animal health.
WHO partners with other international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the CODEX Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), and the Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to gather, surveil, analyze, and disseminate clear and accurate information on animal and human diseases across the globe.
These organizations, all of whom receive funding from WHO, work to eradicate zoonotic animal diseases. Zoonotic diseases cross the animal/ human barrier; think Ebola, H1N1, Monkeypox, Brucellosis, Influenza, and, yes, novel corona viruses. If there is anything that we have learned from multiple global pandemics in: 1918 (swine); 1957(avian); 1968 (swine); 1978 (swine); 1981 (chimpanzees); 2002 (bats/civets); 2009 (swine); and more recently SARS, Avian Influenza, H1N1, MERS; and now COVID-19, these diseases CAN and DO have the potential to mutate and transfer between food animals (domesticated and wild) and humans. And when they do, they have deadly global consequences. WHO and OIE estimate that 60% of human pathogens are of animal origin and 75% of emerging animal diseases can be transmitted to humans. Every year there are 5 emerging diseases.
Controlling and eradicating zoonotic disease is critical to maintaining the health of and demand for U.S. animal protein products. Global trade and technology has lifted the poorest of the poor from subsistence into the middle-class. Today, 9% of the world’s population remain in subsistence poverty. By 2050, the world population is estimated to reach 10 billion people. OIE estimates that the demand for animal protein products will increase by 70% reflecting new consumer habits. Increased global demand for animal protein products, has exponentially increased the farming of food animals, placing more animals on larger farms. Many countries do not have robust or well-funded animal or public health systems. Processing of these animal protein products is also rapidly shifting from smaller traditional distribution channels towards larger and more sanitary channels. These realities illustrate the need for global, well-funded disease surveillance and control systems. They create increased opportunities for zoonotic diseases to cross the animal/human barrier. Add to this the daily global movement of people and goods across international borders and you have the perfect storm for a global pandemic. So, prevention, response, and mitigation of animal diseases IS a global public good.
Eliminating U.S. funding for the WHO, and by extension, its partners during the middle of a global pandemic, believed to have originated in an animal, is potentially deadly in ways we can only imagine. Collectively, these organizations represent over 180+ countries and more than 10,000 public health professionals; veterinarians; researchers; animal scientists; trade and animal feed experts; human nutrition experts; infectious disease experts; emergency preparedness and response personnel; and many others who are responsible for global surveillance of and response to food animal and human diseases as they circulate around the globe. These organizations were set up as the sentinels to ensure that a 1918 influenza-type epidemic does not occur again.
You can argue about complex and seemingly overlapping roles and responsibilities, funding, and who said what when about COVID-19. What you cannot argue is that it is good public policy to cut funding to WHO during the middle of a global pandemic. Decisions like this further rattle and destabilize global animal protein markets by signaling that the U.S. is no longer committed to robust systems to protect global animal and human health. Not funding WHO limits access to a key tool that U.S. government officials and U.S. farmers use to protect human and animal health.
If you are a U.S. livestock, dairy, poultry or egg farmer, it is personal, very personal. This ill-conceived, badly timed, and extremely shortsighted policy endangers the health of U.S. herds and flocks and hard-won consumer confidence in U.S. animal protein product exports. It has shaken confidence in U.S. animal agriculture expertise and the U.S. commitment to be a safe and reliable global market leader.
Audrey J. Adamson is the former chief lobbyist for a major livestock advocacy organization. Today, her consulting practice focuses on legislative, regulatory, and financial and investment issues within the animal protein sector.