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Protecting nature to prevent pandemics costs just 1% of fighting them

© iStock.com/lovleah

Experts say the yearly cost of future pandemics will be a staggering US$ 2 trillion.  

For just 1 percent of that cost, the world could prevent pandemics at their source by protecting nature, according to a new study published today in Science Advances. 

Developed by a group of epidemiologists, economists and conservation biologists — including Conservation International scientists Lee Hannah, Jonah Busch, Jorge Ahumada and Patrick Roehrdanz — the study finds that an investment of US$ 20 billion in cutting deforestation, restricting the global wildlife trade and promoting community health could significantly reduce the risk of another pandemic.

Conservation News spoke to Hannah about what countries and communities must do to decrease disease risk — and how these conservation measures could also help combat the climate and biodiversity crises. 

Question: How can we prevent the next pandemic?

Answer: We must fix our broken relationship with nature. As people encroach deeper into undisturbed forests — disrupting natural ecosystems or trading wild animals — they are also exposing themselves to the diseases that these animals may carry, increasing the risk of future pandemics. 

Fortunately, there are a few simple strategies to prevent this. In a 2020 study, we found that stemming deforestation, limiting the global wildlife trade and extinguishing outbreaks of newly emerged viruses before they spread could significantly reduce the threat of future pandemics. Now, we know more about how much these preventative measures are going to cost: approximately US$ 20 billion — a drop in the bucket compared to the pandemic’s massive economic toll. To be successful, any plan to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases requires collective global action.

Q: What have countries done so far?

A: Several countries have already started to implement conservation measures to reduce pandemic risk. For example, China — which was the largest market for illegal wildlife products — announced in March 2020 a permanent ban on the consumption of wild animals, which has helped decrease the demand for wild animal parts worldwide. 

The United States has signed on to a multi-country pledge to end deforestation, which could have a big impact on pandemic prevention. Right now, the Biden administration is considering legislation to create a global fund for pandemic prevention.

Moving forward, one thing countries must focus on is reducing deforestation driven by commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil — which are responsible for roughly 40 percent of global deforestation. Developed countries can have an impact by creating policies to reduce deforestation in these commodities’ supply chains. 

Q: Is there anything that can be done at a local level?

A: Communities have a big role to play. Our research showed that reducing the risk of disease outbreaks around the world is going to take systemic changes in high-risk communities that regularly interact with wildlife in the forest. More than half of the global risk for disease emergence is concentrated within just 10 percent of the world’s tropical forests. These areas are typically densely settled and have extremely high levels of deforestation. Through this new study, we found that in areas that are already extremely degraded, reducing deforestation will not reduce pandemic risk by much. Rather, it would be more effective to focus on minimizing human-wildlife contact in the areas where zoonotic diseases are most likely to originate.  

This means limiting the consumption of wild animals, changing slaughtering practices to ensure hygienic handling of meats, reducing illegal forest entry and stopping the capture of wild animals for illegal trade. 

In many cases, these actions aren’t disruptive to local lifestyles and can even be beneficial. For example, one virus enters the human body from palm wine that gets contaminated with excrement when bats fly overhead. Simply covering the wine vats with palm fronds prevents disease transmission, which is a win-win because who wants to drink wine with bat excrement?

Virus spillover can also happen on farms; if livestock are exposed to local wildlife, they can then become infected with new diseases that could be transmitted to humans. Therefore, improving the way farmers manage cattle, pigs and chickens is also a big priority for preventing the next pandemic. 

Q: It sounds like the same strategies that prevent pandemics could also help slow biodiversity loss and climate change. 

A: You’re exactly right. By stopping the destruction of nature, countries have a rare opportunity to tackle multiple crises at once. Later this year, 196 countries will gather at the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China to create new goals to protect Earth’s biodiversity over the next decade. As countries are setting their goals, they must remember the inextricable link between nature and human well-being. Investing in strategies to stop deforestation and slow biodiversity loss could help prevent future pandemics like COVID-19, stop climate breakdown and support local communities that depend on nature for their survival. 

Lee Hannah is a senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International. Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Morton National Park (© iStock.com/lovleah)