Published: 14:00, 29 October 2020
| Updated: 14:10, 29 October 2020
Pandemics will emerge more often and be more lethal and damaging without action to reduce the harm to nature that leads to new diseases, scientists have warned.
It is possible to “escape the era of pandemics” but it requires a shift from responding with public health measures and developing vaccines towards preventing diseases emerging, experts said.
That means tackling the unsustainable exploitation of the environment, including clearing forests for farming, more intensive agriculture, and trade in and eating wild species, which increase contact between wildlife, livestock and people and “has led to almost all pandemics”, a new report warned.
Taxes on eating meat and livestock production, curbing the wildlife trade in species that present a high risk of a new disease and conservation of protected areas are among the measures suggested in the report.
Taking steps to reduce the risk of pandemics would cost around 40-58 billion US dollars a year (£31-45 billion), the experts estimate.
But that would be vastly less than the cost of having to deal with pandemics such as Covid-19, which had already cost eight to 16 trillion US dollars (£6-12 trillion) by July 2020.
The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment
The report on pandemics and nature stems from a workshop of 22 experts from around the world, convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
It warns there are an estimated 540,000 to 850,000 currently undiscovered viruses in birds and mammals such as bats, rodents and primates that could have the ability to infect humans.
Risks are rapidly rising, with more than five new diseases emerging in humans every year – any of which has the potential to spread and become a pandemic.
But it is wrong to blame wildlife for the emergence of diseases because pandemics, including Covid-19, are caused by human activities and their impact on the environment, the report said.
Dr Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chairman of the IPBES workshop said: “There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic or of any modern pandemic.
“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.”
He added: “We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”
Changes to how land is used, such as deforestation, building human settlements in wild areas and the growth of crop and livestock production, has caused more than 30% of the new diseases that have emerged since 1960.
Trade and consumption of wildlife for food, medicine, fur and pets, have led to biodiversity losses and emerging diseases including Sars and Covid-19 and pose an important future risk, the report said.
If we are to maintain human health, we have to also ensure planetary health
Climate change is also likely to cause substantial risks of future pandemics by driving movement of people and wildlife.
“Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before,” the report warned.
Potential options for reducing risk include measures to reduce agricultural expansion, trade and consumption of products such as meat, palm oil, exotic woods, and those which require mining, which could include taxes or levies on things such as meat and livestock production.
The report also pointed to more sustainable agriculture, healthier and more sustainable diets including “responsible” meat eating and incentives for companies to avoid high pandemic-risk land activities and products.
Better law enforcement to tackle the illegal wildlife trade and reducing or removing high disease-risk species from legal trade could also help.
Responding to the report, Professor Guy Poppy, professor of ecology, University of Southampton, said: “The link between planetary health and human health was already becoming increasingly recognised, but Covid-19 has brought it to the front of everyone’s minds.
“If we are to maintain human health, we have to also ensure planetary health and the IPBES report offers some approaches to achieving this vital connection.”
Prof Andy Jones, professor of public health, University of East Anglia, added: “Biodiversity loss, climate change, international trade and uncontrolled population growth are all creating conditions that make another global pandemic inevitable.
“Unless urgent action is taken, the question is not if we will see another Covid-like pandemic, but simply when will it occur?”