The Coronavirus Files: A Discussion with WHO Advisor, Prof John Mackenzie

Brett Crossley and eminent Zoonoses Expert, Prof John Mackenzie discuss the biological basis of the Novel Coronavirus, critically engage with the adequacy of the Public Health response by Chinese officials and explore the emerging research field that intersects Human, Animal and Environmental Health (a.k.a One Health). The following is a transcript from what was originally intended to be a telephone-based podcast – due to a number of audio difficulties only snippets from the conversation were salvageable. Recorded 14/2/2020


For those of us who might not be familiar with your work, John, could you give us a background of how you got into Zoonotic disease research and anything up to your current role advising the World Health Organization?

Prof John Mackenzie:

I've been a consultant to the World Health Organization now for about 40 years. I initially got involved with my work with influenza. Most of that was to do with how to make new vaccines for influenza. Then I moved across to where the new influenza strains were coming ... [they were coming] from birds. So I became interested in Zoonotic diseases because of birds and influenza. And then later on, I got much more involved in mosquito borne diseases. Of course, mosquito-borne diseases ... most of them ... go between mosquito's and an animal reservoir of the virus. Humans are usually 'dead-end' hosts or 'occasional hosts’, depending on what the virus is. From there, I also had a student who was working on Hendra Virus. So, I got very interested in bat borne diseases and we also did some work on Bat Lyssavirus, which is very much like rabies. So I've had an interest in one way or another with Zoonoses for quite a number of years in different guises. A part of that also is I've been a foundation member of a group called the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network or GOARN for short. This started initially because the World Health Organization was involved in outbreaks of diseases in different countries. If there was an Ebola outbreak, say in Uganda, every man and his dog would turn up.

Obviously the WHO are the main international health group, but also people would come in Portland, Antwerp, Belgium, Tokyo, Beijing, the CDC, USA and a whole lot of other groups would [also] turn up to help. But there's no one there to tell them what to do to help. In other words, it was very much a whole of people turning up without knowing what to do with themselves. So, the WHO decided that it should make this much more efficient. So they had a meeting and brought all the major partners together and said, "Look, we shouldn't just all turn up. We need to send the right people for the right skills that are requested by the country." Everyone agreed. So, we set up this network, GOARN. That has now been involved in about 220 or 230 outbreaks around the world in the last 20 years. They have sent experts with whatever area of expertise required by that country [to ensure that] they don't get flooded by others, shall we say. And that's worked very well. We do it in conjunction with the WHO. In fact, our Secretariat is embedded into the WHO now. So it's very close relationship with WHO, but, altogether we have about 200 major partners around the world who send people plus another 300-400 partners who are in networks associated with our network. We can have huge number of potential experts we can send who might be available. This all depends on different language groups, so if the country doesn't speak much English, French, Spanish etc. It needs to be linked not only to expertise, but also to cultural and linguistic support as well.

So, I've been involved WHO in that respect for quite a while. I also was the first person to take a team into China for