It may not be enough to prevent the next pandemic, Beer says. But it could certainly help us create and disseminate a vaccine much more rapidly than is currently possible. We can be “better prepared, we can improve our reaction time… and we can influence the impact of a pandemic”, Beer says.

Still, this work takes time and funding to complete – two resources that can be far from abundant.

Changing the way we raise pigs and interact with livestock could be another important intervention. In October 2020, the advisory board of Eat, a nonprofit pushing for food system transformation, released an open letter to the G20, arguing that the expansion of factory farming and unsustainable agriculture is increasing the risk of virus spill-overs from animals to people. “All the evidence we have today shows that if we want to achieve a resilient recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, avoid future pandemics and stand a chance of delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, we must focus on food,” the letter states.

There has been a broader push to move away from factory farming to having smaller groups of pigs raised in greener environments, as well as a shift toward more healthy, sustainable agriculture, too. These ideas form a key part of the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork strategy. Internationally, organisations like Farm Forward are providing funding to communities in developing nations where industrial animal farming is on the rise to maintain their independence and protect their rural farms, which are deemed to be more pandemic and environment-friendly. 

These changes can take time. Meanwhile, I ask Lewis what keeps her up at night. “I’m very concerned about all the viruses in pigs globally,” she says. “We need way more information about what’s out there.”

The more we know about a disease, the better placed  are to avoid its spread. But ours is a complex, connected system. We don’t live in silos – we can’t detach Europe’s diseases from Asia, or Mexico’s from the United States, and keeping on top of every virus is nearly impossible. “We just catch up, and it changes,” says Lewis.

For all the work going on in the scientific community to stop spillover, far bigger changes – from social, to regulatory, to environmental – could be needed to avoid the next pandemic.

Reporting for this story, part of our series Stopping the Next One, was supported with funding from the Pulitzer Center.


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