Corona & Co: How Vegetarian Nutrition and “One Health” Can Prevent Pandemics

The range of zoonoses is as varied as the diseases caused by human viruses: in addition to brain inflammation, which also includes rabies, classic examples are also liver inflammation caused by hepatitis E, West Nile virus, fever hemorrhagic as in Ebola, respiratory diseases as in the case of Corona and rashes – monkeypox is probably the most recent example.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Mettenleiter …
… is a molecular biologist and virologist and researches mainly animal viruses. One of his focal points is herpes viruses, which he has better understood, among other things, and which can be better tackled with new vaccines. He directs the Friedrich Löffler Institute on the island of Riems, on the west coast of Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea and has been a member of the Leopoldina since 2000.

In any case, the demarcation here is not that simple: “I would like to point out that although Sars-CoV-2 was most likely originally from an animal department, it is obviously a human pandemic, meaning it was mainly transmitted from person to person. “stresses Thomas Mettenleiter. Which raises the question of whether it is worth making a distinction between zoonoses and non-zoonoses. True to the motto: virus is virus and should be avoided if possible.

Prevention: hygiene, vaccination – and enough living space for everyone

There is nothing wrong with this basic principle when it comes to acute prevention of chains of infection, hygiene keyword: “We have learned that even in the last couple of years wearing mouth and nose protectors, washing our hands and disinfecting that has it also makes sense to ventilate the rooms and pay attention to cleanliness. ” Thomas Mettenleiter calls this “non-pharmaceutical intervention”. To put it bluntly, home remedies. It gets more complicated when it comes to non-home remedies: While bacterial infections can be treated well with antibiotics, viral infections often lack the right pill.

So it’s best not to let it get that far: “On the one hand, of course, prevention also means vaccination,” says Mettenleiter. “It is one of the great achievements in medical history that we can use vaccines on a large scale and that they show their value.” On the other hand, of course, avoidance and hygiene of contacts, between man-animal and animal-animal. The fact that we may experience more zoonoses is also fundamentally related to our breeding efforts: “The human population will soon reach eight billion, be it direct or indirect.”

So, if we take the issue of prevention seriously, then it really is true that we need to change our behavior as well.


Prof. Dr. Thomas Mettenleiter
biologist and virologist

And then not only vaccination and a little cleaning help as a prevention. To combat epidemics and pandemics of animal origin, human behavior must change radically. “Then it is not enough to be prepared for the next epidemic or pandemic. And this is precisely the approach that requires a new concept. It is called One Health, which is the only health that at this moment does not focus only on human health and animals, but it includes the health of the environment: the environment and ecosystems and, ultimately, the health of the entire planet “. So when the earth is healthy, so are we. Thomas Mettenleiter illustrates this with an example:

“Nearly eight billion people want to be fed, and nearly eight billion people also have an increasing need for animal protein. This means that farm animals also need to be fed.” Logical. And that requires the right terrain: “As a result, people enter habitats they have not previously penetrated and then, of course, come into contact again with pathogens they may have encountered only very rarely – if at all – in past”.

Pathogens travel rapidly around the world

Plant-based nutrition instead of animal proteins is therefore an indispensable preventive measure when it comes to reducing the number of future epidemics. Or let’s say: to prevent your rise. Because wisely, globalization also contributes to the spread of pathogens: “We have global travel. This means that every pathogen that appears anywhere on this planet has the opportunity, at least in principle, to reach every other corner of the world in a few days.” , says Thomas Mettenleiter. This would lead to local outbreaks that spread rapidly around the world – an epidemic that becomes a pandemic.

Our pandemic blinders are currently making sure to only keep an eye out for Corona and possibly monkeypox. But this is obviously only part of the truth about the virus: “The challenges are, on the one hand, that we recognize how different the world of pathogens actually is. In the past, we have focused very significantly on humans and the animals that are. directly involved have to do with people, “admits Thomas Mettenleiter. “Of course we have a giant reservoir in the wild animal field, and we also know we have a giant reservoir of infectious agents, including viruses. That means one of the challenges is recognizing this reservoir, tapping into it.” Secondly, an even greater challenge will therefore be assessing how dangerous these pathogens can become for humans.

Don’t just look at the coronavirus

Even the fact that so much attention is paid to Covid-19 and therefore to corona viruses is not entirely harmless. The main pandemics of the last century were caused by influenza viruses (flu) – even viruses that come from an animal reservoir and have completed a whole series of stations there: the pathogens of influenza presumably come from wild birds, which then via poultry and presumably the pig people have arrived. Virologist Thomas Mettenleiter points out that this is as true for the Spanish flu as it is for the Asian or Hong Kong flu. “We must not ignore the pathogens of previous pandemics. But we must also pay attention to what new possible pathogens have appeared here. And flaviviruses, among other things, certainly play a role here.” They trigger diseases such as yellow fever, dengue fever, or West Nile fever. The physical distance from Northeast Africa suggests a false sense of security: West Nile virus first appeared in Germany in 2018, on an owl in Halle. The pathogen can be dangerous not only for an owl, but also for humans and, under certain circumstances, for meningitis or kidney failure.

Finally, and this note is for the reader with empathy for all those non-human animals, it should be noted that zoonoses are a two-way street. What animal epidemics are to us are human epidemics for animals, which no four-legged animal or dipterus would want to have. Corona is not the beginning of a series of pandemics originating in the animal kingdom, Thomas Mettenleiter points out: “Human history is full of epidemics and pandemics. So it was not the beginning and it certainly will not be the end.”

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