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Sweden in the pandemic spotlight

A Swedish case study highlights the need for a better connection between humans, animals and the environment in pandemic management.

Health

Three quarters of the world’s emerging diseases spread from animals to humans, or vice versa. Although scientists are not entirely sure about the origins of COVID-19, the SARS CoV 2 virus very likely jumped from animals to humans, triggering the health crisis that shook the world. The World Health Organization’s unifying ‘One Health’ (OH) approach for balancing and optimising the health of people, animals and the environment has therefore gained increasing importance as a way to prevent, predict and respond to global health threats such as this. The approach is based on human-animal-environmental interconnection that encourages collaborations between these sectors to optimise health for all – not only humans. Focusing on the Swedish COVID-19 experience, a recent case study discusses OH inclusion in Swedish COVID-19 plans and the benefits and limitations of applying OH principles to future pandemic prevention strategies. As part of the EU-funded PERISCOPE project, the case study forms part of a report on best practices in multi-level governance during pandemics.

No formal inclusion yet

Sweden may have made substantial progress in its work on OH, but this is only practically – not formally – included in plans and collaborations regarding zoonotic diseases. In fact, the animal sector was excluded from the early pandemic response, and communication between it and Sweden’s public health agency was minimal during the outbreak. “It was the Swedish National Veterinary Institute agency itself who contacted the regions and volunteered to help by testing samples for COVID-19,” write case study authors Walter Osika and Elin Pöllänen of PERISCOPE project partner Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The researchers conclude that OH does not seem to be part of Sweden’s pandemic and crisis management. “The current perceived human-animal divide within public health discourse was recognised as an obstacle for collaboration between the animal sector and human sector. In contrast to international reports highlighting the increasing relevance of OH in tackling pressing and multi-rooted issues such as pandemics, climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies …, there are no indications that OH is to be implemented in the Swedish work on primary prevention to address the underlying causes of, for example, spillover risk.” However, the problem does not only lie in the application of OH but in OH as a concept itself. It has been found to be anthropocentric – placing greater importance on human health – and focused on surveillance. It also displays “a lack of clarity, direction, accountability and policy impact,” according to the report. The PERISCOPE (Pan-European Response to the ImpactS of COVID-19 and future Pandemics and Epidemics) case study concludes with some policy recommendations. These include adopting an OH crisis management framework that includes animal and environmental health, linking environmental and sustainability goals to human and animal health and implementing real animal welfare laws. They also involve improving representation from the animal and environmental sectors, making decision-making processes more transparent and addressing Sweden’s role in pandemics and sustainability targets. For more information, please see: PERISCOPE project website

Keywords

PERISCOPE, animal, human, pandemic, environment, Sweden, COVID-19, One Health

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