Science

Zoonotic disease needs to be stopped at source, top scientist warns

Humans must think ‘more holistically' about how we interact with nature to prevent future pandemics, Professor Peter Horby said.

Humanity needs “much more holistic thinking” about how it interacts with nature in order to prevent future pandemics, one of the scientists who identified a life-saving Covid-19 therapy has warned.

Professor Peter Horby was one of the architects of the Recovery trial that discovered the commonly-prescribed dexamethasone could cut coronavirus deaths by one third.

He is one of several scientists to be knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for their work fighting the pandemic, and is now heading Oxford University’s new Pandemic Sciences Centre.

Prof Horby said long-term investment in pandemic research would be vital in averting another crisis on the same scale as Covid-19.

“I’ve been involved in SARS 1 and bird flu outbreaks and Ebola outbreaks, and I’m afraid there’s rather short memories among many groups of people who forget the crises very, very quickly and what you see is short-termism,” he told the PA news agency.

“You see short-term investment and then it fades away.”

Prof Horby also warned the threat posed to humans by zoonotic diseases – viruses that jump from animals to humans – would only grow as global warming accelerates and climate breakdown continues.

“There needs to be much more holistic thinking about how we farm animals, how we interact with the environment,” he said.

“These things are crossing over into humans from animal sources and we need to stop things at source, not when it’s too late and there’s a pandemic.”

The Pandemic Sciences Centre will be working across a number of areas, including intelligence gathering and situational awareness.

“What are the threats, where are the threats, how can we mitigate them, how can we stop them becoming pandemics?”, Prof Horby asked.

The centre will also be working on developing interventions such as drugs and vaccines that can be deployed swiftly to try and neutralise a threat.

As well as medical research, it will look at how to build trust between scientists, politicians and the wider population – “so we are working together to make the world a safer place”, Prof Horby said.

Also recognised with a knighthood is Professor Martin Landray, who worked closely with Prof Horby and Professor Richard Haynes to set up the Recovery trial.

Within hours of publishing their findings on Jun 16 2020, prescribing dexamethasone for Covid-19 was standard practice in the NHS.

“It was saving lives by the weekend and within days and weeks it was standard practice across the whole world,” Prof Landray said.

“It was a beautiful result.”

The team had begun trials within nine days of setting out a research protocol, and had identified dexamethasone within less than 100 days of launching the trial.

The team credit the pace of the discovery to the involvement of frontline NHS doctors and nurses who helped enrol volunteers.

“Trials used to be thought of as something specialist that only special people called ‘professor’ or something could do,” Prof Landray said.

“What we did is turn this into is something that every doctor, every nurse could contribute to across the entire country.”

Prof Landray said medicine has always put a barrier between frontline healthcare professionals placing people into trials.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is that the feedback we’ve had from those frontline doctors and nurses – that in such difficult times, instead of merely coping with the crisis, they have been contributing in their own way to finding the solution,” he said.

Prof Landray said he hoped that using clinical trials “at the coalface” of clinical medicine to rapidly identify better treatments would be one of the positive legacies of the pandemic.

“There is another pandemic on the way, we don’t know when, we don’t know where, we don’t know what the bug will be, but we will need better trials for, that we will need treatments for that,” he said.

Prof Horby praised all the patients, most of them seriously ill with the disease, who volunteered for the trials.

“Many of them were very elderly and frail and their family were very concerned,” he said.

“Agreeing to be part of a research project at this time is a phenomenal achievement – and they have benefited not just the UK population but the whole world.”

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