Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are disproportionately vulnerable to zoonotic disease outbreaks, which can have a significant economic cost within the region and spread across borders. A central factor is that most GCC countries lack the institutional infrastructure needed to identify, respond to, and mitigate emerging threats. In 2019, about 17 percent of global zoonotic disease outbreaks occurred in the GCC region, even though it is home to merely 0.6 percent of the global livestock population.
There is significant value at stake. Worldwide, zoonotic diseases have generated approximately US$20 billion in direct costs in the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, plus more than $200 billion of indirect losses, in areas such as commerce, travel, and the wider economy. Global connections are likely to exacerbate the issue.
Given the growing challenge, GCC policymakers should adopt an integrated, transdisciplinary, and cross-sectoral approach for predicting, detecting, controlling, and combating zoonotic diseases. This approach consists of five steps: design and activate an animal disease control institutional framework, develop the animal disease control infrastructure, adopt disease control technologies, cooperate across borders, and engage the private sector.
Several aspects of the GCC make it vulnerable to the spread of zoonotic diseases. These include the desert climate, a deep-rooted herding heritage, and rituals involving millions of livestock sacrifices. What heightens the risk of these vulnerabilities is that most GCC states lack the required ecosystem to predict and detect animal disease outbreaks before they occur, nor have they the capacity to control and combat them after they have started to spread.
Exacerbating matters is the shortage of reliable quarantine facilities, diagnostic labs, and veterinary clinics across the region. Disease control centers are largely absent. Disease prediction, detection, and control measures are relatively outdated. Qualified personnel are increasingly scarce. Moreover, the minimal restrictions on the movement of animals across borders places an additional strain on an already overburdened system. Most important, the absence of detailed disease control plans, with clearly defined roles and accountabilities for each stakeholder, mean that the outbreaks that do occur potentially can spread.
The 2000 Rift Valley Fever outbreak in Saudi Arabia underscored these shortfalls. The disease, a virus that can transfer from livestock to humans, spread all the way to Yemen and resulted in nearly 900 human cases, more than 120 human deaths, and major losses in livestock populations.
The lack of an ecosystem to predict and mitigate animal disease outbreaks means that the GCC contributes disproportionately to zoonotic diseases worldwide. In 2019, about 17 percent of global zoonotic disease outbreaks occurred in the GCC region, even though it is home to merely 0.6 percent of the global livestock population.
As the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated, zoonotic diseases can have worldwide implications. They accounted for roughly 60 percent of existing human infectious diseases and up to 75 percent of emerging human pathogens, leading to 2.5 billion cases of illness and 2.7 million deaths annually before the pandemic (see Exhibit). In addition to their detrimental impact on humans, animal-borne diseases pose a substantial threat to food security, causing the loss of approximately 20 percent of global annual animal production. Argentina’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the early 2000s cost the country’s meat exporters an estimated $250 million, along with up to 10,000 layoffs at slaughterhouses and farms.
In the aggregate, zoonotic diseases generated approximately $20 billion in direct costs worldwide over the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, plus more than $200 billion of indirect losses, in areas such as commerce, travel, and the wider economy. With trends such as climate change, global travel and trade, and urbanization, the number and impact of zoonotic diseases could increase.
Countries in the GCC are at higher risk for animal disease outbreaks than other parts of the world, and they are also less prepared. As the COVID-19 outbreak illustrated, zoonotic diseases can be massively disruptive and carry global consequences in terms of human health and economic impact. The next outbreak is coming. GCC policymakers must build the right response mechanisms to anticipate and control it before that happens.