At the Congress in Washington last month we were lucky to meet Conservation X Labs CEO and co-founder, Dr Alex Dehgan. He joined us at the event for a panel on pandemic preparedness in the face of a changing climate, so we were glad to secure some of his time to learn more about the threats he identifies and their implications for the vaccine community. We hope that you enjoy the interview!

Introducing Dr Dehgan

Dr Dehgan kindly tells us a bit about Conservation X Labs, which he co-founded to work on “preventing the sixth mass extinction” and climate change through innovation and technology. You can learn more about these efforts here.


What does climate change mean for public health?

Our followers may be familiar with studies and movements that link climate health to human health. When we asked Dr Dehgan about the implications of climate change on public health he indicates that we are seeing a “realisation of a few things”. The first is the “changing” and “moving” of “tens of thousands of species”.

“Entire ecological communities around the world are reforming. And those species are carriers of diseases; they’re diseases themselves; they’re pests and pathogens, and all of those things are happening at a rate that we really can’t fathom.”

Dr Dehgan believes that things that worked in the past may not be the “best guides” for the vaccine development of the future.

“It is a world where we, through our behaviour, are selecting for pathogens, that are really, you know, adapted for change.”


Planetary health

Much of the current conversation about public health is coloured by a One Health perspective. We asked Dr Dehgan how this has a bearing on his work and his answer invited us to consider a “larger framing”.

“It’s probably planetary health…It is not just climate change, but it is climate change times environmental degradation.”

He offers us a useful analogy for “trying to separate out the effects of these things” on disease incidence.

“It is like saying I’m going to assign a drum and a drumstick X percentage of the noise – you can’t really separate them out; they interact together.”

Dr Dehgan then invites us to go beyond this. If climate change is changing the “competitive environment” and other factors for disease, and environmental degradation increases things like “stress” or interaction with humans, Dr Dehgan suggests we “need to think” about the changing world and what this means for health. So what does planetary health consider?

“This idea of planetary health, we can start looking at other factors; we could start thinking about what effect wildlife trade has, bushmeat, you know what effect does invasive species have, what effect does pollution have?”

The next stage is a slightly more disheartening note from Dr Dehgan! He offers the fact that micro-plastics are in 94% of US tap water, in salt, beer, and in the natural environment.

“But they’re finding that those are actually vectors themselves; they’re platforms for carrying diseases and they’re platforms for carrying toxins, both of which have an effect on disease.”

For a vaccine context, Dr Dehgan suggests that we should think about things slightly differently, breaking out of our assumptive trends.

“We should question some of our assumptions and look at the upstream factors that give rise to diseases around the world.”


Who suffers the consequences?

Our next question was about the people who are most affected by disease. Dr Dehgan suggests that one of the “challenges” in conservation is the burden on the people who are closest to the problems.

“We ask to bear the greatest cost, but they actually can least afford it.”

Unfortunately the line between “survival” and “non-survival” is “very thin” for communities affected by diseases like African Swine Fever, where the death of a pig could mean the loss of income for “entire communities”. The economic side to this experience is one that we have become more familiar with during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen the effects of the pandemic on our economy, on economies around the world.”

The takeaway from Dr Dehgan’s perspective is that the changes and diseases that we are “selecting for” will require a re-evaluation of traditional thought processes. For example, we can think about “who are we vaccinating”, and Dr Dehgan refers to the US BIOLOGICS approach of vaccinating mice.

“How do we think about a different strategy, that involves vaccines, and involves these upstream factors around what we’re trying to do?”


Biosurveillance meets vaccine development

Dr Dehgan also gave us an insight into the importance of biosurveillance: “the work that we need to do to really understand disease spillover”. He provides us with some statistics about the prevalence of COVID-19 in animals in the US, which reminds us “to think about the reservoirs” and to understand “what actions we can do to reverse the risk, or reduce the risk”. The study that Dr Dehgan mentions can be accessed here.

“The last kind of point on vaccine development is, the speed at which I think we’re going to see not only the emergence, but the mutation, of these pathogens, I think is increasing exponentially…if that is the case, then we need new ways of vaccine development that might be much more collaborative, and distributed around the world to meet the speed and the scale of the problem.”


Why this Congress?

The final question for all our speakers invites them to share their highlights of the event. For Dr Dehgan, the learning opportunities from the “extraordinarily knowledgeable group of people” are a particular benefit. Furthermore, this group is “also super nice”!


It was a pleasure to meet Dr Dehgan and get an insight into his interesting work and the perspective he brings to the community. We hope to continue the conversation at future events! If you enjoyed this interview make sure you subscribe to our newsletter for more like this.