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Protect nature or risk future pandemics, expert warns

© Welcomia

Humanity’s continued assault on the environment could unleash another pandemic — and soon.

So says Dr. Neil Vora, Conservation International’s new pandemic prevention fellow. Vora, an epidemiologist, has devoted his career to chasing infectious diseases — from Ebola-stricken villages in West Africa to the deserted streets of New York City as the coronavirus pandemic raged. 

Though every new infectious disease is unique, research shows many share a key feature: They are driven by the destruction of nature.

In a recent interview with Conservation News, Vora discussed how his experience as a physician has helped him explore the links between human health and the health of the planet — and why humanity must ‘fix its broken relationship with nature’ to prevent future pandemics.  

Question: What started your passion for pandemics — or, more specifically, preventing them? 

Answer: My dad had smallpox as a child. Growing up, I saw the disease's legacy in the scars it left on his face. When I asked him about it, he’d explain that he was lucky to have survived because the virus is extremely deadly; it can kill 1 out of every 3 people it infects. This made me aware at a very young age of the devastating impacts that infectious diseases can have and the importance of finding ways to prevent them. Then, as a teenager, I watched the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” and it was over — I knew I wanted to wear a hazmat suit and chase dangerous diseases around the world for my career. 

Q: How did you get your start chasing diseases?

A: After finishing medical school, I joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate zoonotic diseases, or those that jump from animals to humans. I spent my first two years as a “virus hunter,” tracking pathogens coming from nature. During that time, I led an investigation of a newly discovered smallpox-like virus in the country of Georgia. When the West Africa Ebola outbreak hit in 2014 — the largest outbreak of this disease ever — I deployed to Liberia, where I was stationed in a rural community, working with the local health department to perform contact tracing and infection control. 

More recently, I led New York City’s COVID-19 contact tracing program, which helps stem the spread of the coronavirus by identifying people who may have come into contact with an infected person. Last spring, New York City was one of the epicenters of the pandemic, with more than 203,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 between March and May of 2020. The contact tracing program was crucial to bringing coronavirus case numbers down and helping the city re-open during the summer of 2020, but it was no easy feat. 

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Dr. Neil Vora looks for the new smallpox-like virus in Georgian cattle © CDC 

Q: Wow. What did it take to get NYC’s contact tracing program off the ground? 

A: Last May, my team and I had less than a month to hire and train a team of more than 2,500 contact tracers, deliver supplies, develop safety and operational protocols, and launch a contact tracing program for the largest city in the United States. It was a Herculean effort that required us to work tirelessly, day and night for weeks. 

I ran the program for nearly a year. We tracked more than half a million people with COVID-19 and worked with the city to offer housing, food, and even dog-walking services to people in isolation or quarantine. Being surrounded by so much death was emotionally draining, but it was also extremely rewarding to help bring the virus under control in the city. In a way, this experience connected me back to my father’s illness because contract tracers, equipped with vaccines, were the heroes that led to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s

Q: How does a doctor and epidemiologist end up working in conservation?

A: During medical school, I realized that human health cannot be separated from the health of the planet. If you look back over the past century, two new animal-borne viruses have emerged from nature every year — and these numbers are expected to rise in the coming decade if we continue to degrade nature. Research shows deforestation is a major driver of emerging infectious diseases. As the global wildlife trade persists and humans continue to encroach deeper into forests, there are more opportunities for diseases to spread from animals to humans — a process known as “virus spillover.” This process can even happen on farms; if livestock are exposed to local wildlife, they can then become infected with new diseases that may also be transmitted to humans. 

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Therefore, conservation is critical for public health — and it goes beyond just preventing infectious disease outbreaks.  

When we fight climate change, we protect ourselves from extreme weather events, malnutrition and climate-related mass migration. When we conserve the world’s oceans and fish, we protect ourselves against starvation. When we protect tropical forests, we also maintain “nature’s medicine cabinet” — in other words, the wildlife and plants that could offer clues to solving illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis. We need nature to survive.

Q: What have we learned from COVID-19 that could prevent another pandemic? 

A: We must fix our broken relationship with nature or we can likely expect another pandemic within a decade. To do this, we need to stop virus spillover at its source, before new infectious diseases have a chance to trigger an outbreak — or even a full-blown pandemic. 

Just 10 percent of the world’s tropical forests hold more than half the global risk for zoonotic disease emergence, according to recent research co-authored by Conservation International experts. While we must focus on protecting these tropical forests, zoonotic diseases can emerge wherever there is wildlife. We should therefore reduce deforestation and forest degradation around the world, restrict the global wildlife trade and reform unsafe livestock farming, to prevent future pandemics. 

Although some countries are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel due to the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, the coronavirus is still devastating many populations. I’ve spent years responding to one outbreak after another — and almost every one of those outbreaks originated from animals. In my new role at Conservation International, I’m excited to take a proactive rather than reactive role by addressing the drivers of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. Now is the time to create policies and invest in strategies for prevention — protecting nature will help us save millions of lives and trillions of dollars in the future.


Neil Vora is the pandemic prevention fellow at Conservation International. 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: A wind power station near Westerhever, Germany (© Laszlo Novak/Wild Wonders of Europe)