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Some 850,000 unknown viruses have the potential for a pandemic if we do not stop exploiting nature

ByMicheal Johnson

Oct 29, 2020

In the future, pandemics will emerge more frequently, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative shift in the global approach to tackling infectious diseases, warns of a new report from the Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Most (70%) of emerging diseases (such as Ebola, Zika or Nipah encephalitis) and almost all known pandemics such as influenza and HIV / AIDS are zoonotic, that is, they are caused by microbes of animal origin . These microbes “spread” due to contact between wildlife, livestock and people.

Experts warn that another 1.7 million currently “undiscovered” viruses live in mammals and birds, of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect humans.

The COVID-19 is at least the sixth pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all the previous ones, its appearance has been driven entirely by human activities, the study states.

“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 create pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment, ”warned Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop from which the report emerged.

According to Daszak, 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 the people. “This is the path to pandemics,” he warned.

And it is that scientists explain that the risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new illnesses emerging in people each year, any of which has the potential to spread and become a pandemic.

More than twenty experts agree that the risk of global public health threats can be significantly reduced by reducing human activities that drive biodiversity loss, through greater conservation of protected areas, and by reducing unsustainable exploitation. In this way, contact between animals, animals and humans can be reduced and will help prevent the spread of new diseases.

WHO / P. Phutpheng

A technician in a laboratory in Thailand studies zoonotic samples.

Exploitation, climate change and loss of biodiversity

Unsustainable exploitation of the environment due to land use change, expansion and intensification of agriculture, trade and consumption of wildlife and other factors, disrupts natural interactions between wildlife and their microbes, increases contact among wildlife, livestock, people and their pathogens, increasing the risk of new viruses emerging in humans.

Furthermore, climate change has been implicated in the emergence of diseases (for example, tick-borne encephalitis in Scandinavia) and will likely cause a substantial pandemic risk in the future by driving the movement of people, wildlife, reservoirs and vectors, and the spread of their pathogens, in ways that lead to new or increased contact between species. It can also alter the natural dynamics of the host-pathogen.

Furthermore, the loss of biodiversity associated with landscape transformation may lead to an increased risk of emerging diseases in some cases, where species that are well adapted to human-dominated landscapes may also harbor pathogens that pose a high risk of zoonotic transmission.

Pathogens from wildlife, livestock and people can also directly threaten biodiversity and emerge through the same activities that drive disease risk in people. For example, the appearance of chytridiomycosis, a fungal infection in amphibians that appeared worldwide due to the wildlife trade.

Wildlife farming has expanded substantially, particularly in China before COVID-19, where the raising of “non-traditional animals” generated $ 77 billion and employed 14 million people in 2016.

Agriculture, trade, and consumption of wildlife and wildlife products (for food, medicine, fur, and other products) have led to loss of biodiversity and emerging diseases, such as SARS and COVID-19.

AMISOM / Omar Abdisalan

Raw meat for sale in a market in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Massive costs that can be avoided

The report indicates that pandemics and other emerging zoonoses cause widespread human suffering and more than a trillion dollars in economic damage annually. This adds to the continuing burden on human health from other ailments that have historically appeared.

Experts say that the true impact of COVID-19 on the global economy can only be accurately assessed once vaccines have been fully implemented and transmission between populations is contained. However, its cost has been estimated to be between $ 8 to $ 16 trillion globally by July 2020 and may reach $ 16 trillion in the United States alone by the fourth quarter of 2021 (assuming an effective vaccine already exists) .

The study outlines global strategies to prevent pandemics, based on reducing wildlife trade, changing land use and increasing surveillance, that would cost between 40,000 and 50,0000 million dollars a year, much less than a pandemic costs.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion. We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are addressing them at the moment ignores this tool. Our focus has stalled: we still rely on attempts to contain and controlling diseases after they arise, through vaccines and therapies. We can escape the era of pandemicsBut this requires a much greater focus on prevention as well as reaction, ”added Daszak, one of the report’s authors.

For the expert, the fact that human activity has been able to change the natural environment in such a fundamental way does not always have to be viewed negatively.

“It also provides compelling proof of our power to drive the change necessary to reduce the risk of future pandemics, while benefiting conservation and reducing climate change,” he said.

CDC / James Gathany

The Center for Disease Control in the United States has activated its Emergency Operations Center to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

A shift from reaction to prevention

The report emphasizes that relying on responses to disease after its onset, such as public health measures and technological solutions, particularly the rapid design and delivery of new vaccines and therapies, is a “slow and uncertain path”. underscoring both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy for reacting to pandemics.

The risk of a pandemic is driven by exponentially increasing anthropogenic changes, therefore blaming wildlife for the emergence of diseases is wrong, because the emergency is caused by human activities and the impacts of these activities on the environment. .

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and expertise in informing policy and decision-making,” said Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES.

World Bank / Simone D. McCourtie

Tests in a Hanoi lab to confirm cases of contagious diseases.


The report offers a number of policy options that would help reduce and address pandemic risk:

  • Create 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; assess the economic impact of potential pandemics and highlight gaps in research.
  • That the countries establish mutually agreed goals or objectives within the framework of an international agreement, with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
  • Institutionalize the approach to “One Health” of the World Health Organization in national governments with the aim of preparing for a pandemic, improving pandemic prevention programs, and investigating and controlling outbreaks in all sectors.
  • Develop and incorporate impact evaluations on the health of emerging disease risks and pandemics in major development and land use projects, while reforming financial aid so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are explicitly recognized and targeted.
  • Ensure that the economic cost of pandemics is accounted for in consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enable changes to reduce the types of consumption, global 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-risk pandemic activities.
  • Reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental “health and trade” partnership; reduce or eliminate species at high risk of disease in the wildlife trade; improve law enforcement in all aspects of illegal trade and improve community education at disease hotspots about the health risks of these practices.
  • Value participation and knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities in pandemic prevention programs, achieve greater food security and reduce the consumption of wildlife.
  • Close critical knowledge gaps, such as those on key risk behaviors, the relative importance of illegal, unregulated and legal and regulated wildlife trade in disease risk, and improve understanding of the relationship between degradation and restoration of ecosystems, the structure of the landscape and the risk of the appearance of diseases.