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3 ways to prevent the next pandemic with nature, according to science

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

From testing to hospitalizations to economic recovery efforts, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are projected to cost the global economy US$ 5.6 trillion dollars this year.

A new study published today in Science outlines a groundbreaking plan to decrease the risk of future pandemics by 27 percent or more — with a 10-year investment that is 50 times less than the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date.

Developed by a group of public health experts, ecologists, economists and epidemiologists, the strategy is three-pronged: reduce deforestation, restrict the global wildlife trade and monitor the emergence of new viruses before they spread.

To understand why protecting nature is key to saving the global economy — and countless lives, Conservation News spoke to three of the study’s co-authors: Conservation International scientists Lee Hannah, Jorge Ahumada and Patrick Roehrdanz. 

1. Reduce deforestation 

Over the past century, two new animal-borne viruses have emerged from nature every year — and these numbers are expected to skyrocket over the next decade. 

According to experts, deforestation is largely to blame.

Research shows that land-use change — such as development or agricultural expansion — is the single largest driver of emerging disease. As humans encroach deeper into the undisturbed forest, they are also exposing themselves to animals and the diseases they carry — a process known as “virus spillover,” Hannah explained. 

“Whether it is someone hunting for bushmeat or shopping at a wild animal and fish market, virus spillover can happen any place where there is wildlife, especially in the tropics,” Hannah said. “The risk becomes even higher when countries cut down forests to make room for roads, agriculture or infrastructure because they are also creating new edges of the forest — which can increase exposure to animals with diseases that can infect humans.”

Reports show that deforestation climbed by 3 percent in 2019 — with the planet losing a soccer-field sized chunk of tropical forest every six seconds. 

But not all hope is lost — if countries invest in strategies to dramatically decrease deforestation, Roehrdanz says.

“Just 10 percent of tropical forests hold more than half of the global risk for zoonotic disease emergence or ‘spillover’ from animals to humans,” Roehrdanz explained.  “An upfront investment in reducing tropical deforestation now could save us billions of dollars down the line by preventing the next pandemic.”

The new study concludes that investments between US$ 1.5 billion and US$ 9.6 billion could decrease deforestation at a rate that would reduce the risk of forest loss-related disease spillover by 40 percent in high-risk areas. The strategies will to reduce deforestation vary by country based on political, economic and environmental factors. 

"Decreasing deforestation does not have to come at the cost of economic growth,” Hannah explained. “In fact, implementing sustainable strategies — such as getting rid of agricultural subsidies that support the widespread clearing of land — could actually save countries money.” 

For example, in the Alto Mayo region of Peru, what was once the most highly deforested area in the country is now protected by more than 848 local coffee-farming families who directly benefit from the sale of carbon credits and sustainably grown coffee. With support from Conservation International, these REDD+ carbon projects reduce deforestation, while providing alternative sources of income for small-scale farmers — without sacrificing profit.

Overall, the study found that reducing deforestation could offer an additional annual savings of US$ 3.7 billion by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the damage they cause as climate change accelerates. In fact, investments in deforestation for disease control would actually offer a net gain when climate change benefits are taken into account, Hannah added.

“To help prevent the next pandemic, it is crucial for countries and businesses to incentivize protecting forests rather than destroying them,” he said.

“Not only is this good for public health, it will help slow climate change.” 

2. Limit the global wildlife trade 

Described by many scientists as “hotbeds of disease,” markets that sell wild animals have likely been the origin of several zoonotic illnesses, including COVID-19 and the 2003 SARS outbreak

But these markets are just the tip of a (multi-billion-dollar) iceberg: the global wildlife trade. 

Driven by demand for wild animal delicacies or the exotic pet industry, the global wildlife trade generates US$ 23 billion every year. But these indulgences come at a cost to public health, Ahumada explained.

“The wild animal trade puts species in contact with other species — and other diseases — that they likely would have never encountered naturally in the wild. 

“As soon as these animals are traded internationally, the risk of a small zoonotic disease outbreak turning into a full-blown pandemic suddenly increases exponentially.”

According the new study, the first step to preventing this is by banning the national and international trade of species that have a high risk of spreading disease, such as bats and pangolins. 

The second step? Making sure those policies stick. 

In light of the public health crisis, China announced in March 2020 a ban on wildlife trade and consumption for food, which could decrease demand for wild animal parts worldwide. But enforcement is just as crucial as the ban itself, Ahumada said.

“The farming industry in Southeast Asia is often used as a cover to funnel animals from the illegal wildlife trade into the global market unnoticed. We need to fund organizations that know how to track and enforce wildlife trade bans so that they can have a long-term impact on disease prevention.”

At a global level, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is responsible for monitoring the wildlife trade, while regional networks — known as WENs — enforce regulations locally. To effectively tackle the illegal wildlife trade, however, these organizations’ budgets must increase by at least US$ 250 million per year, the report states.

3. Increase early virus detection

On December 31, 2019, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Wuhan, China. However, recent research revealed that the virus had already been raging through the city undetected since November, triggering a pandemic that would soon spread to every corner of the world. 

According to Hannah, the key to preventing these silent outbreaks is investing in research programs to detect disease spread at its source as soon as it arises. 

“There is a significant underreporting of human exposure to zoonotic diseases around the world,” Hannah said. “We need to actively track and stop virus spillover in areas where people are in high contact with wildlife, including farms and ranches, because zoonotic diseases such as swine flu and bird flu can emerge from human-livestock contact.”

Organizations such as the EcoHealth Alliance are already running programs to monitor zoonotic diseases, but are unable to expand surveillance at a global scale due to limited funding. The report found that an investment of at least US$ 1.5 million per agency would offer a significant return on disease prevention. 

“By identifying the regions that are most vulnerable to virus spillover, countries can also target the communities that stand to benefit the most disease prevention strategies, including protective gear to prevent human-livestock contact, effective sanitation infrastructure and education programs,” Hannah said.

“The fact of the matter is, the most cost-effective — and just plain effective — way to deal with a pandemic is to make sure it never happens in the first place."


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Kanuku Mountains, Guyana (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

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