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Worse Crises to Come If Global Response Remains Weak, Warns New Report

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Like all pandemics COVID-19’s emergence has been entirely driven by human activities. Photo credit: ADB

Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, warned a new report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world. 

Convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for an urgent virtual workshop about the links between degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks, the experts agree that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in a statement.

Path to pandemics 

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities, UNEP said, citing the report released on 29 October. It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently “undiscovered’” viruses exist in mammals and birds—of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.

“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 IPBES 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,” he said in the statement.
 
COVID-19 cases now total 47.9 million globally as of 5 November, with deaths at 1.2 million.

Policy options 

The report offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are: 

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; predict high-risk areas; evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps. Such a council could also coordinate the design of a global monitoring framework.
     
  • Countries setting mutually agreed goals or targets within the framework of an international accord or agreement—with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
     
  • Institutionalizing the so-called "One Health" approach in national governments to build pandemic preparedness, enhance pandemic prevention programs, and to investigate and control outbreaks across sectors. One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programs, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
     
  • Developing and incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects, while reforming financial aid for land use so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted.
     
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
     
  • Enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics—this could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.
     
  • Reducing zoonotic disease risks in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental “health and trade” partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of the illegal wildlife trade and improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.
     
  • Valuing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ engagement and knowledge in pandemic prevention programs, achieving greater food security, and reducing consumption of wildlife.
     
  • Closing critical knowledge gaps such as those about key risk behaviors, the relative importance of illegal, unregulated, and the legal and regulated wildlife trade in disease risk, and improving understanding of the relationship between ecosystem degradation and restoration, landscape structure and the risk of disease emergence.

Speaking about the workshop report, Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and expertise to inform policy and decision-making. Although it is not one of the typical IPBES intergovernmental assessments reports, this is an extraordinary peer reviewed expert publication, representing the perspectives of some of the world’s leading scientists, with the most up-to-date evidence and produced under significant time constraints.”

“We congratulate Dr. Daszak and the other authors of this workshop report and thank them for this vital contribution to our understanding of the emergence of pandemics and options for controlling and preventing future outbreaks. This will inform a number of IPBES assessments already underway, in addition to offering decision-makers new insights into pandemic risk reduction and options for prevention” she added.

This article was first published by the United Nations Environment Programme on 29 October 2020.