05.11.2020 |

Protecting nature is the best way to avoid pandemics, report

One of the cover photos of the report

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like other pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities. This is the message of a new report released on October 29th which was compiled by 22 experts from around the world who were convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for a workshop about the links between degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks. “There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.” Land-use change alone has globally caused the emergence of more than 30% of new diseases reported since 1960. And there is more to come: It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds of which up to 827,000 could still infect people.

The good news is that pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, for example by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of regions which are rich in biodiversity. Such measures would reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report. However, this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention. “The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” Like in most other areas, the costs for reaction measures are much higher than for prevention. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.” In addition, relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and the design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics is a “slow and uncertain path”, which entails widespread human suffering and economic damage to the global economy.

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. “The fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics – while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.” In order to reduce the role of land-use change in pandemic emergence, the experts recommend the following policies: In major development and land-use projects, health impact assessments should be developed and implemented regarding the risk of pandemics before those projects are allowed to begin. Financial aid for land-use should be reformed so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted. National governments should consider removing subsidies for activities that involve deforestation, forest degradation and land use change. Moreover, decision-makers should enable transformative change in the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics. “Unsustainable patterns of global consumption drive globalized agricultural expansion and trade, and are linked to pandemic risk, as well as land use change, biodiversity loss and climate change,” the authors explain. “Increasing available knowledge on the economic benefits of more sustainable consumption and agricultural development could be used to drive an added incentive in a shift to agriculture that focuses on provisioning of ecosystem services, while responding to the needs of food security for local communities and encouraging human, animal and ecosystem health.” (ab)

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