Research on zoonoses by Dr. Aneta Afelt

Graphics: Aneta Afelt, Christian Devaux

The face of the modern world is global anthropization, which affects the Earth’s resources and the stability of ecosystems. One of the consequences is the epidemiological threat resulting from the disclosure and then rapid spread of commonly unknown diseases. This applies to both animals and humans. It is estimated that about 70% of diseases affecting people are of zoonotic origin, they are the so-called zoonoses. The barrier of animal pathogen – human being is most often crossed by accident, in specific conditions of disturbance of the local ecological niche. Nevertheless, the consequences can be of epidemic proportions on a global scale.
The classic examples are coronaviruses: a family of viruses that colonize vertebrates, often without any symptoms. In the beginning of 21st century, there were two epidemics in the world as a result of breaking the human-coronavirus barrier: MERS and SARS. The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, causing the COVID-19 disease, is the third and the first of a global range to spread so rapidly, colonizing virtually all communities in the world in a few months.


First of all, the violation or destruction of the natural ecosystem balance – the plundering of natural resources, demographic pressure and the exchange of goods, especially foods, between ecologically (epidemiologically) distant regions. Under the conditions of anthropogenic pressure, a specific “market” is created for the exchange of pathogens between individuals, species, geographical areas, which under natural conditions would have a limited chance to occur.

As a result, the circulation of pathogens is facilitated and close contact between wild animals and humans dramatically increases the risk of breaking through the inter-species barrier. With the movement of people and the transport of goods and food, the pathogen spreads from the original ecological niche (sylvatic phase) and the growth of the epidemic occurs, probably this is what happened in Wuhan (amplification phase), the first region in the world where a new disease has been found.


Under conditions of intensive economic development, dynamic population growth and global exchange of goods, the circulation of pathogens is accelerated. One of the factors that fosters the development of the epidemic is a drastic shortening of the transport time of goods and people who, as symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, are nowadays identified as one of the best pathogen vectors (transmitters). This process is currently taking place with SARS-CoV-2.


In Anthropocene conditions it is difficult to control often accidental breakdowns of the pathogen-human barrier. The development of analytical techniques to detect the presence of pathogens only identifies their existence in the environment, without the possibility of preventing transmission. The results of integrated, interdisciplinary research make it possible to identify so-called hot-spots – areas of increased epidemiological risk. The results of the research do not leave any illusions – robbery of the ecosystem balance favors the risk of transmission of pathogens.


Without integrated, sustainable management of environmental resources and an epizootiological and epidemiological diagnosis, we will globally be struggling with successive mutations of coronaviruses, but also a whole range of other pathogens.

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Frontiers in Microbiology

GeoPlante Doctorate School at PAS, opening lecture [12.10.2020]

The promises of the One Health concept in the age of anthropocene [28.05.2020]


GeoPlante Doctorate School at PAS, opening lecture [12.10.2020]

The promises of the One Health concept in the age of anthropocene [28.05.2020]


Dr. Aneta Afelt

is a geographer, she deals with health geography and environmental science. Her research focuses on the interdisciplinary application of geography and its research apparatus in complex epidemiological analyses. She works, among others, within the countries of South-East Asia, where she studies the relationship between anthropogenic environmental disturbances and the risk of new zoonoses. A particularly important place for the application of geography and environmental sciences is in the One Health concept, whose philosophy is the interdependent consideration of human, animal and environmental health in a socioecological niche.
Participant of international projects in the field of epidemiology and public health, including the World Health Organization (WHO).

In April 2018, together with her colleagues, she published an article forecasting the risk of a new coronavirus outbreak in the South East Asia region: “Bats, Coronaviruses, and Deforestation: Toward the Emergence of Novel Infectious Diseases?” (Frontiers in Microbiology). She has been one of the first public voices in the country to speak openly about the inevitable appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Poland. As the reason for the inevitability of colonisation of the global community by the virus, she refers to our connectivity – intercontinental and regional, which is a network of individual transmissions from human to human.

For the last few months her activity has been focused mainly on the analysis of the epidemiological situation of SARS-CoV-2 in Poland and worldwide. She works in the Interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical and Computer Modelling at the University of Warsaw. In March 2020 she became a member of the COVID-19 team at the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and a scientific consultant for national representatives for COVID-19 activities at the European Research Council (ERC), since 30 June she has been the Secretary of the COVID-19 Advisory Team under the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Since October 2019 she has been a guest of Espace-DEV research group, whose research area is modelling of socioecological niches. This laboratory is affiliated with IRD – Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Montpellier (France).