Event Report

Expert Talk: Emerging infectious diseases at the animal-human interface

For our Expert Talk Event in September 2023, the Alliance invited Prof. Dr. Jan Felix Drexler who spoke about the special role of the animal-human interface in relation to emerging infectious diseases (EID), especially viral diseases. Jan Felix Drexler is a recognized medical doctor and virologist at Charité in Berlin, where he leads the virus epidemiology working group with focus on novel viruses from humans and animal reservoirs. He also works abroad as a consultant for the German Federal Government and provides information on how to deal with and prepare for pandemics, particularly in countries of the Global South. Since 2020, he led advisory trips to Benin, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and over 20 other countries on the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic, including donations of PCR tests designed to diagnose locally relevant SARS-CoV-2 variants, tests to assess immune responses elicited by locally used COVID-19 vaccines and human capacity development in handling highly pathogenic viruses.

Th event started off with Jan Felix Drexler presenting on wildlife-associated viral EIDs, their origin, zoonotic potential and its relevance for humans. His presentation gave a clear overview also on the difficulties regarding the estimation unknown viruses due to biases like the PCR breadth, the fact that studies mostly focus on a single host or a single country and only few sample types being used. Dr. Drexler explained why we are currently entering an age of pandemics and what human behaviour has to do with it. Globalisation, land-use changes, biodiversity loss, the animal-human interface, and climate change are among those factors that contribute to increased viral spillover risks. In this context, the possible methods of preparation and, in some cases, their limits for future pandemics were discussed. Jan Felix Drexler emphasized that most viral host switches will are likely to occur in the Global South due to, among other things, high biodiversity. At the same time these regions have a greater risk for the severeness of a future pandemic because of limited resources. However, looking at international collaboration, countries from the Global South are often underrepresented. Closing the presentation with an outlook on how to address spillover risks, according to Jan Felix Drexler, adequate preparedness for pandemics can only be achieved through prevention at the source, timely detection, and rapid response mechanisms.

In the subsequent open discussion, the importance of interdisciplinarity and the necessity that essential risks such as future pandemics need to be viewed through different lenses was underlined. Besides, speaker and attendees discussed the connection between biodiversity loss and the emergence of new infectious diseases in different scenarios, as well as the increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of environment and health factors at civil society and political levels.

Registered Alliance members can find the recording of the presentation in the members area under the Expert Talk Thread in the ‘News & Community’ forum.