The ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak is an example of yet another infectious disease emerging at the animal-human interface, causing considerable concern and disruption as it spreads across international borders. It is remarkable to think that we didn’t know about this new coronavirus a few weeks ago, yet it now dominates news headlines globally and has caused major disruptions to travel and trade.
Much of what we have been witnessing is a result of the rapid sharing of information, possibly more than with any other outbreak. The early messaging to the world about the initial stages of the outbreak contrasts with the delayed sharing of information that characterised the start of the SARS epidemic in 2002–2003. Indeed, within days of the first reports in December 2019 of a mystery cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan we heard about the discovery of a new presumptive aetiological agent, shortly followed by the freely available genome sequence of the virus.
This is not the first time we have encountered a previously unknown or new strain of a virus emerge in human populations who have close contact with wildlife and other animals, whose spread is accelerated by modern human transportation pathways and crowded urban environments, and with notable healthcare-associated transmission. The SARS epidemic in 2002–2003,4 the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the emergence of MERS coronavirus in 20124 and the 2014–2016 West African Ebola outbreak are the obvious recent examples associated with spread across international boundaries and appreciable morbidity and/or mortality in humans. All have been associated with considerable global anxiety and disruption.
Episodes of zoonotic spill-over leading to sustained transmission of new infectious diseases in humans appear to be increasing in frequency. As a consequence, pandemic preparedness must be a priority for the global health agenda.
This latest outbreak will undoubtedly provide numerous learnings and International Animal Law recommends that one of those applied learnings is the recognition that the 200 year old rulebook governing human-animal interactions needs to be updated to make it fit-for-purpose in a modern world with global sized risks and consequences.