The World Health Organization released a note warning that two cases of a new variant of the influenza virus A(H1N2) called A(H1N2)v, which is considered to have the potential to cause a new pandemic, have been discovered in Brazil. Two workers at a swine slaughterhouse in the southern state of Paraná were infected and have recovered.
The newest patient infected initially sought medical care on April 14. After that, a preliminary report was shared with the Panamerican Health Organization on June 22nd, but only on July 9th, a couple of days ago, did the WHO publish the alert on their "Disease Outbreak News" page. Looking retrospectively, authorities found a second individual who also worked at the slaughterhouse and presented respiratory symptoms in the same time frame, which makes this a suspect case.
Scientists are still investigating if this virus can be transmitted from person to person, or just from animals to people. "To date, 26 cases of influenza A(H1N2)v have been reported to WHO since 2005, including two from Brazil. Most of the cases have presented with mild illness and there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission," says the WHO note. It also stated that "the identification of any additional human cases will inform the risk assessment on the likelihood of any person-to-person transmission."
While we hope that no other pandemic will happen, we cannot ignore that there are already many well-researched links between the likelihood of new pandemics and factory farming:
1. Factory farming is the perfect ground for new diseases
Several disease outbreaks, including ebola and AIDS, are believed to have started due to the consumption of animal products. It's also well established among scientists and organizations that factory farming could be the source of future pandemics. Despite not being a recent discovery, this is an argument that has been gaining traction in the public debate in recent years, especially now that we're all facing the impacts of COVID-19.
Less than a week ago, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report stating that factors like agricultural intensification, increased demand for animal protein, deforestation, and climate change could lead to the emergence of new pandemics that originate in animals before spreading to humans, similar to the new coronavirus.
The report explains that animals like cows, pigs, and chickens can help spread diseases because they are now often bred "in less than ideal conditions" for higher production levels, and are genetically very similar, so they are also more vulnerable to infection than genetically diverse populations. To make things worse, most farmed animals are now in factory farms, which are industrial facilities that confine thousands of animals together and do not allow physical distancing between the animals.
In many medium- and low-income countries, like Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Thailand, and Indonesia, UNEP says there is a rapid increase in the consumption of animal products, making meat production grow 260% and egg production grow 340% globally in the last 50 years. It comes as no surprise that, according to the report, "since 1940, agricultural intensification measures such as dams, irrigation projects, and factory farms have been associated with more than 25 percent of all—and more than 50% of zoonotic—infectious diseases that have emerged in humans."
2. Slaughterhouse workers are under serious risk
It's not just a coincidence that these two new cases of A(H1N2)v in Brazil were reported in slaughterhouse workers.
Meatpacking and factory farm workers are more exposed to farmed animals' bodily fluids and excrement than anyone else, as they are responsible for handling, slaughtering, and butchering hundreds of millions of chickens, pigs, cows, and fish every day. They are on the front line. If these fluids carry diseases, it's likely that these workers are going to be contaminated first and then infect other people, if the pathogen has the potential to do so.
Slaughterhouses and factory farms are the "ideal" places for the initial contamination and for a pathogen to spread all over. During the COVID-19 pandemic, slaughterhouses in several countries became major hotspots for the spread of the virus. This happens because of the cramped conditions of work, the impossibility of social distancing within the processing lines, and in some cases, long and exhausting working hours, inappropriate sanitary conditions, and overall social vulnerability of these workers. This is why we believe no one wants to work in a slaughterhouse.
3. Viruses are mutating, and this is potentially very dangerous
The new case of influenza reported in Brazil is a variant of the A(H1N2) virus, and according to the WHO, "further genetic and phenotypic characterization of the virus from the patient is ongoing." It shows us that these viruses are always changing, which is expected but not entirely harmless.
Some mutations may have little or no effect, while others may hamper the virus. Eventually, stronger and more efficient strains might be created that can spread more easily or start person-to-person infections.
Currently, most human cases are the result of exposure to swine influenza viruses through contact with infected animals or contaminated environments. However, the virus can evolve into one that can start spreading between humans. It can also change into a variation that can no longer be prevented with the vaccines we currently have.
In order to avoid new disease outbreaks and pandemics, it's imperative that we change our broken food system. People should collaborate to reduce the demand for animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy products. If you want to do even more, click here to donate and support our initiatives to encourage people to go vegan and to ban the worst practices of factory farming in the global south.