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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused profound hardship globally. As well as disrupting economies and social and cultural life, it has also resulted in the deaths of more than 1.2 million people and appears to have caused long-term symptoms in some of those who have recovered from the disease.
However, a new report from the IPBES suggests that unless the world shifts from a reactive to a preemptive approach to pandemic risk management, future pandemics could be both more frequent and more severe.
Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop that produced the report, 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 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 adds.
The authors of the report highlight that there are approximately 1.7 million unknown viruses that exist within birds and mammals, of which 540,000–850,000 may be able to transfer to humans in the manner that SARS-CoV-2 and other zoonotic diseases have done.
The authors note that zoonotic diseases have been the cause of “almost all known pandemics.” However, they make it clear that the problem lies not with nonhuman animals and the environment, but with human actions that are increasing the contact between humans and other animals.
As a consequence, the authors argue that the world should adopt a “one health” approach to pandemics, recognizing the close relationship between human health, nonhuman animal health, and the environment. According to the authors:
“Pandemics such as COVID-19 underscore both the interconnectedness of the world community and the rising threat posed by global inequality to the health, well-being, and security of all people.”
Adopting a one health approach would mean that, at a global level, we would be best able to minimize the frequency and severity of pandemics, enabling us to “escape from the pandemic era.”
Despite the report’s dire warnings, the authors argue that the world has the capability to change its approach to pandemic management.
For Dr. Daszak: “The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion. 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,” Dr. Daszak notes.
“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,” he continues.
The report identifies a series of global interventions that would help shift our approach to pandemics from a reactive to a preventive one. These include:
creating an intergovernmental council on pandemics to provide cutting-edge, high quality scientific advice, predict areas at high risk, and make clear the economic effects of pandemics
developing international accords to agree on global goals and targets that would reduce contact between wildlife, livestock, and humans
including pandemic risk assessments for major development and land-use projects
changing global consumption patterns that encourage agricultural practices that place a stress on ecosystems and put humans and livestock in closer proximity to wildlife, thereby increasing the risk of zoonotic transmission
increasing regulation of the trade in wild animals to reduce the risk of zoonotic transmission
recognizing the value of indigenous people’s knowledge when formulating pandemic responses
educating the public, policy makers, and governments on the exacerbating factors for pandemics
The authors of the report suggest that these changes could cost up to $58 billion. However, while a significant figure, it is more than two orders of magnitude smaller than the estimated cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which stands at up to $16 trillion as of July 2020.
Beyond the economic costs, the authors of the report argue that their proposal will also greatly benefit health, conservation, sustainable development, and the response to global heating.
It is this joined-up approach to thinking about global challenges that, for the authors, “will provide a vision of our future in which we have escaped the current ‘pandemic era.’”
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