How can One Health prepare us for the next pandemic

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The animal, human and plant worlds are becoming increasingly interdependent, and the outbreak of Covid-19, believed to have originated from bats, has put this dependency into global focus. What can a One Health approach tell us about these interconnected worlds and help us to prepare for future pandemics?

We spoke to four leading One Health experts about how the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative has supported its advancement, the need for early warning systems, how data is core to problem-solving and how it is increasingly coming on to the agenda of policymakers around the world.


One Health is based around the appreciation of the interconnected nature of humans, animals and the environment and that for all of these spheres to be healthy then it is vital that the dependency they have on one another is recognised.

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Data has a key role to play in understanding how these worlds are connected through data modelling of future and current scenarios, while genome processing helps in the understanding of which human genes are vulnerable to infection.

The DDI Initiative has funded a number of projects related to One Health and has contributed funding to the Scottish Covid-19 Response Consortium (SCRC), which is developing new models to inform the control of the pandemic.

Lisa Boden, chair of population medicine and veterinary public health policy at the University of Edinburgh, says: “DDI has enabled investment in systems to improve data sharing and make pipelines of data available for model development.

“DDI funds enable us to innovate in terms of collecting data, using data, sharing data and creating new data sets that not only allow us to deal with the current pandemic but prepare for the next disease emergency event.

“This infrastructure has allowed models to be developed that can respond to outbreaks of disease whether they are in the human, animal or plant world. It would have been difficult to have this capability without the DDI.”


One Health advocates had long predicted a pandemic on the scale of Covid-19, according to Professor Geoff Simm, director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. He believes the biggest lesson from the pandemic is an understanding that better early warning systems are needed.

He explains: “People working in One Health have been saying for decades that there was going to be a massive pandemic, and one of the biggest lessons from Covid has been an understanding that we need to have better surveillance and better emergency response mechanism that could contain an outbreak in its early stages or before it emerges.”

Professor Ross Fitzgerald, chair of molecular bacteriology at the University of Edinburgh, and director of the university’s Edinburgh Infectious Diseases network, also says early warning systems will be key to isolating future pandemics.

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He observes: “Surveillance is going to be massive going forward in terms of looking ahead and determining where the next pandemic is going to come from so we can be prepared for that.

“Rather than waiting for new viruses to be discovered only when they have been established in humans, carrying out surveillance of the environment, including humans, animals and wildlife, will allow problems to be identified before they take off.”

The SCRC provides a mechanism for not only dealing with the current pandemic, but providing modelling that could help to tackle future outbreaks.

The consortium is a collective of epidemiologists, mathematical modellers, data scientists, software developers and other scientists and is supported by a number of organisations, including the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland.

It feeds into the Royal Society’s Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic, which seeks to understand transmission of Covid through adapting large-scale animal disease models developed as part of EPIC – the centre of expertise on animal disease outbreaks at the University of Edinburgh.

Boden says: “Covid has seen great collaboration within Edinburgh and beyond from the veterinary sector. The SCRC, which the DDI initiative fed into, is important not only in the response to Covid-19 but to future pandemic preparedness.”


One Health, with its focus on humans, animals and the environment, has substantially increased the number of data points involved in traditional research which would only focus on one strand.

Traditional mathematical models, however, are now being combined with machine learning tools to allow One Health researchers to go through large volumes of data rapidly and identify key trends and factors that shape disease.

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Professor Rowland Kao, chair of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, says: “The more intricate a problem then the more multidimensional it is, and the more multidimensional it is, the more important it is to have different data sets that come from different directions.

“If you try to understand a multidimensional problem by only looking at one dimension, how much can you really understand about it?

“If I have an infectious disease and I can only see what is happening in the human population and I can’t see what is happening in other areas, then how much can I understand to help solve that problem?”

Fitzgerald says that genome sequencing of both pathogen and human host will be key to controlling infections caused by future pandemics.

He adds: “Genome sequencing generates large amounts of data to help us understand how viruses spread and cause disease. It can also indicate which human genes promote susceptibility to infection helping us to identify new or repurposed drugs to treat infections.

“Over two million sequences of SARS Cov2 viruses have now been generated from almost all countries around the world in what has been a global effort, and we also have sequences from the host side with 100,000 different human genome sequences.”


One Health needs government support if its aim is to become rooted in future responses to pandemics and there are signs internationally and domestically that it is firmly on the policy agenda.

Boden says: “There is huge support for this at international level through intergovernmental organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

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“All of these organisations have signed up to One Health as a concept and are implementing its principles.

“Scotland has set up four centres of expertise around water, climate change, animal disease outbreaks and plant health that are trying to tackle problems through different lenses and through a One Health approach.”


The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security focuses on challenges in feeding the world’s population and protecting global natural systems through a One Health approach

The organisation brings together experts not only from the fields of data and science but also from the arts, humanities and social sciences from across the University of Edinburgh and its partner institutions to support decision-making in the public and private sector.

Boden says: “The Global Academy is an innovative boundary organisation that brings together interdisciplinary networks of people who are working on food security as it pertains to One Health and planetary health into a single space to respond to global challenges particularly in relation to hunger and life on land.

“The organisation allows us to mobilise knowledge across different boundaries within Scotland but also internationally when it comes to foodproduction.

“There is a large diversity of projects that are happening that explore all aspects of food systems, from production – animal diseases and soil health – right through to the consumption.”

Geoff Simm, director of the Global Academy, believes that protecting habitat and how we produce our food is key to managing future health emergencies.

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He says: “Some diseases have always moved between other animals and humans and they always will, but as we reduce the habitat for wild animals and as we come into contact with them more often, we are increasing the chances of the transmission of disease.”

And he adds: “The way we farm and produce food is linked to managing the future risks of pandemics.”

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