Background Dec 6, 2021

Prof Hans Nauwynck (58) is a veterinary virologist. As a scientist, researcher and professor he is connected to Ghent University, Belgium, at the Laboratory for Virology, part of the Department of Virology, Parasitology and Immunology within the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

The approach to viruses in animal husbandry is better than the approach in human medicine. Human virology can learn a lot from that, says veterinary virologist Prof Hans Nauwynck.

Prof Nauwynck has another message. He is extremely annoyed by the allegation that modern livestock farming is the cause of all pandemics and must therefore be curbed or eliminated. “Celebrities, politicians, writers and journalists just shout. Mostly nonsense. They have heard the bell tolling, but they do not know where the clapper is. It is true that a virus can circulate in a barn with many animals, but you can tackle it in that one barn with the necessary biosecurity measures. Blaming all the diseases in the world on livestock farming is nonsense. It is also correct that viruses can transfer from animals to humans, but that mainly concerns wild animals. Intensive livestock farming, which also falls victim to many virus introductions from the wild, is doing everything it can to prevent and control these types of infections.”

Then what about minks?

Hans Nauwynck: “Remarkable. Minks proved to be excellent hosts for Covid-19. They were infected by humans and not the other way around. The animals were culled because they were a danger to humans due to the formation of new variants. Mink farming fell victim to Covid-19 in humans. This was never properly communicated. From an ethical point of view, it made sense to stop these mink farms.”

What does that complete control consist of?

“Biosecurity in intensive livestock farming has become a completely logical system. Mind you, this does not concern hobby farmers, who can introduce a lot of problems. Consider, for example, avian influenza. But in order to enter a barn on an intensive pig farm, you must go through hygiene locks. Filters on the ventilation block everything. Livestock farms are highly isolated from the outside world.

With livestock, Covid would never have circulated so quickly

“In addition, there is a well-connected identification and registration (I&R) system: every animal, every farm, every transport has a number, with which they can be traced. It is completely controlled. Transport of an animal is rare and when it is transported, you must comply with all kinds of rules. It is all set up in such a way that we try to keep viruses out. You cannot say the same about humans. Only the I&R (passport, tickets) works. The rest (travel, contacts) much less so. In fact, it stops there. Humans travel freely around the world. In this way, we spread viruses all over the world in no time, which Covid-19 now shows.

“With livestock, the virus would never have circulated so quickly. Mass travel is not done. If a person wants to catch a flight, they should first check their health and make sure they are virus-free. Ill and virus-shedding people should not fly. Flying is not only an ecological but also a sanitary problem. Aimless human travel makes the world one big barn in which a virus has free rein. The question is, who has the courage to discuss this at the highest level of public health? Blaming livestock farming happens fast; discussing hot topics in humans is often postponed. After all, animals have no voting rights.”

Are there any other differences in the approach between humans and livestock?

“Look at the diagnosis of diseases. As veterinary virologists, we are very well trained to find out what causes a disease. Is it a virus or a bacterium and which one exactly? This is essential for starting and improving treatment and prevention. If you go to the doctor with a cold or diarrhoea, you are usually advised to wait it out and to come back if it does not get better. Then you get antibiotics. It is not even determined which germs are involved, a bacterium, a virus or something else. And they do not prescribe specific antibiotics either.

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