Collaborating for the sake of human and animal health

Animal health and various environmental factors have a bearing on human health. The One Health approach takes all the different aspects into consideration and explores connections between them. A One Health centre of international standing is now being established in Greifswald.

A scientist is holding a planet in their hands.

Many things are interconnected in our increasingly globalised world. That’s a nice idea in principle, and one that offers many opportunities – though it also entails some risks. All of this is researched with respect to health and the environment in the area of One Health.

But what does One Health actually mean? It is an overarching approach aimed at promoting the wellbeing of humans and animals, while also taking ecology into account. Which reciprocal effects exist between human, animal and plant health? How is the outbreak of diseases in animals and humans connected to biodiversity? How can pandemics be prevented? These are the kind of questions that One Health seeks to answer. Research in this field – like the approach itself – is still in its infancy. The north German university town of Greifswald has set itself the goal of becoming an international centre for One Health research.

A high security laboratory for research on large animals

“In Greifswald we have a number of internationally visible research institutions with complementary expertise in the area of One Health”, says Professor Katharina Riedel, rector of the University of Greifswald. From 2020 to 2021, she served as acting founding director – until Professor Fabian Leendertz was appointed as the new director – and played a key role in setting up the new Helmholtz Institute for One Health (HIOH) in Greifswald.

The HIOH, an institute of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), is a perfect fit for the One Health research environment in Greifswald: via a cooperation agreement, the HIOH is closely affiliated with its partners, namely the University of Greifswald, Greifswald University Medicine and the Friedrich-Löffler-Institut (FLI), Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, which is located ten kilometres away on the island of Rehm.

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Katharina Riedel

Which pathogen is set to jump to humans next, after SARS-CoV-2?

“In 2019, when we were getting geared up for One Health research here in Greifswald, we could not have imagined just what an urgent topic this would become only a short time later”, says Riedel. The global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020 made it quite clear that pathogens can jump from animals to humans – and that this can have very grave consequences in some cases. “One Health also investigates how such events come about – and how they can be prevented or at least detected at an early stage in the future”, Riedel explains.

In this context, it is essentially always the case that the – global – connections between nature and humans are the key. Accordingly, the research alliance also collaborates with numerous international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). In addition, cooperation is underway with research institutions such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the Institut Pasteur in Cambodia.

One of the main research objectives is to discover which viruses are carried by animals and where, and where there is a particularly high risk of these being passed on to humans. However, a research project is also underway to find out why resistance to antibiotics develops, what role in this is played by humans, animals and the environment, and what steps could  be taken to prevent this from happening.

There are also other relevant aspects. “One Health is also about understanding how people’s physical and mental health are affected if they spend a period of time in an intact environment such as a natural forest”, says Riedel, explaining that this is another of the fascinating and indeed agreeable facets of One Health: it is not merely about preventing illness but about promoting good health. Though of course the two are inextricably linked in any case.