STUDY: Investments in Nature-Based Pandemic Prevention Would Save Trillions Compared to Prevention Response

July 23, 2020

Ten-Year Prevention Equals $223-301 Billion, World May Lose $5.6 Trillion in GDP This Year Alone

Arlington, Va. (July 23, 2020) – Investment in pandemic prevention costs trillions less than current estimates of what a two-year response to COVID-19 will cost, according to a study published today in Science by Conservation International scientists Lee HannahJorge Ahumada and Patrick Roehrdanz.

Preventing future pandemics before they start by reducing deforestation and disease spillover from wildlife trade and containing viruses through early detection. Disease spread reduction between humans and livestock could cost as little as $22.3 to $30.1 billion per year in collective global investments. An initial 10-year investment at this level is substantially less – 20 to 30 times less – than the estimated $5.6 trillion the global economy stands to lose in the 2020 recovery response alone.

The study brought together the expertise of economists, public health officials and conservationists to illustrate that nature-based prevention strategies are a cost-effective approach to preserve the health of people, Earth and the global economy.

“If we invest in prevention, the savings in lives and cost are tremendous. Our research suggests that a 10-year investment on the order of $300 billion could make a big difference in reducing the probability of the next pandemic. We don’t want to go through this again, so we need to act now to reduce the factors that lead to pandemics,” said Hannah.

The U.S. share of a 10-year, $300 billion plan might be as little as $30 billion, if costs are shared with other developed and middle-income countries. That amount is less than 1% of what the U.S. has spent on COVID-19 so far this year.

The study details four strategies as part of a framework governments can use to prevent pandemics – reducing deforestation, controlling illegal wildlife trade, improving veterinary practices and early detection. Funding the nature-based deforestation and wildlife trade solutions in the next round of recovery stimulus packages would make a major contribution to preventing future pandemics at significantly lower economic cost compared to the cost of responding to an outbreak once it has arrived. In addition to the upfront savings, these solutions have the added annual savings of $3.7 billion in benefits to society from reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

More zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are anticipated to emerge due to increased human pressure on nature, continued loss and fragmentation of tropical forests and the illegal wildlife trade. To address these problems, Conservation International scientists recommend investments in the following four strategies:

Reduce deforestation and stabilize land use

  • When there is more than 25% deforestation in an area, contact between humans and wildlife at the forest edge increases dramatically, which increases the chance of disease spillover.
  • Direct deforestation investments are co-beneficial for nature and industry. For example, in the Amazon from 2005-2012, deforestation was reduced 70% by removing policies that drove forest loss, coupled with about $1 billion per year investment in enforcement of land-use zoning, market and credit incentives and state-of-the-science satellite monitoring. But at the same time agricultural production rose in the region.
  • The implementation of direct forest-protection payments in the amount of $9.6 billion could reduce deforestation at a rate that would decrease the chance of forest loss-related disease spillover by up to 40%.

Reduce zoonotic disease spillover from wildlife trade

  • Wildlife markets and legal and illegal wildlife trade heighten risk for spillover due to consumption of bushmeat, poor sanitation in markets, unsafe transit conditions and more.
  • Raising budgets for agencies charged with enforcing laws on wildlife trade to $250-750 million per year, would bring a high return on investment.
  • Collectively, this funding would enhance capabilities to:
    • Pass and enforce laws against all international trade of high-risk disease species such as primates, bats, pangolins, civets and rodents.
    • Increase capacity for international regulating bodies and national and regional monitoring organizations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and Association for Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Wildlife Enforcement Network (WENs).

Capture and contain virus through early detection to prevent large outbreaks

  • Test humans and animals in areas with high disease emergence risk to decrease potential disease spillover.
  • Educate communities about zoonotic disease to lower contact with wildlife that could lead to disease transfer.
  • Implement and educate on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) standards.
  • Encourage use of, and increase access to, personal protective equipment in areas at high risk of human-livestock contact, such as at farms and in bat caves.

Reduce disease spread between humans and livestock.

  • Enact proposals that improve farming conditions for livestock to contain emergence of disease from human-livestock consumption.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the world have rolled back environmental protections while some global organizations and governments have been recommending or already included funding for nature as part of recovery plans, like the EU. Those advocating for funding include the United Nations and International Energy Agency, but little is targeted toward pandemic prevention. The United States has excluded such funding to date, but several bills are now moving which promote pandemic prevention by reducing deforestation, limiting wildlife trade and improving early detection and livestock health.

But even as measures to prevent pandemics begin to move, Conservation International scientists have observed increases in poaching and deforestation around the world following COVID-19 restrictions. Any passage of pandemic prevention and forest protection in new stimulus funding should happen soon to help curb these harmful trends for nature and humanity.

“COVID-19 restrictions have increased the frequency in which people are coming into contact with nature to seek alternative sources of food and income,” said Ahumada. “It’s imperative we invest in solutions that limit this interaction, including concerted efforts that lessen the frequency of illegal wildlife trade which is another cause for concern.”

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

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.