To Prevent Future Pandemics, Protect Nature

All six of the most recent pandemics have been linked to destructive human activities like deforestation, climate change and the wildlife trade

A photo of a demolished peat forest in Indonesia. There aren't any trees or shrubs left, only branches piled on top of each other. A river runs through the photo with pieces of sawnwood floating on it. The deforested area stretches to the horizon, where i
When natural places are destroyed, wildlife are exposed to humans at the edges of their habitat, and they can expand their territories into urban areas, increasing the likelihood of contact with humans. Wakx via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

Yesterday, an international group of scientists issued a warning: Without major steps to protect Earth's land and wildlife, Covid-19 won't be the last pandemic in our lifetimes. A new report chronicles how human activities, like habitat destruction and wildlife trade, increase the likelihood that humans are exposed to new diseases, reports Sarah Gibbens for National Geographic.

The report, compiled by 22 experts and citing more than 600 studies, was published yesterday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It details how the human-driven destruction of the planet has increased the risk of contracting new diseases, and it provides recommendations for how to prevent future outbreaks.

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in an animal, but which species and where will be hard to confirm, reported David Cyranoski for Nature in June. No matter the origin, it's not the only deadly virus that's jumped from wildlife to humans. Humans contracted HIV from chimps, which likely got it from other monkeys; wild and domesticated birds have been targeted a culprits of the 1918 flu pandemic; and Nipah virus was transmitted from fruit bats to domesticated animals to humans.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the sixth pandemic since the influenza outbreak in 1918, all of which have been "entirely driven by human activities," the IPBES panel says in a press release.

"The risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to become pandemic," the report states. It suggests that 70 percent of emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmissible from non-human animals to humans. Up to 580,000 undiscovered viruses carried by animals have the potential to infect humans, reports Brian Kahn for Gizmodo.

Ecosystems, like forests, have high levels of biodiversity, and with that abundance of life comes an abundance of diseases. When these places are destroyed, wildlife are exposed to humans at the edges of their habitat. Or they may expand their territories into urban areas, increasing the likelihood of contact with humans.

Deforestation is largely driven by the world's demand for beef. In regions like the Brazilian Amazon, forests are cleared to create fields for cattle to graze. If cattle contract a zoonotic disease, they can act as intermediaries between wildlife and humans by transmitting the disease to the people they come in close contact with, reports National Geographic.

Climate change also fuels disease emergence. Rising temperatures are causing animals to migrate out of their natural ranges and towards the poles, reports Gizmodo, pushing them into new regions and spreading the diseases they carry with them.

"There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic—or any modern pandemic," Peter Daszak, president of the Ecohealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop, says in the press release. "The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk though their impacts on our agriculture."

"Clearly, in the face of Covid-19, with more than one million human deaths, and huge economic impacts, [the current] reactive approach is inadequate," Daszak tells Damian Carrington for The Guardian. "There is enough science that shows a way forward and would involve transformative change that rethinks our relationship with nature."

To be proactive about the next pandemic, the report outlines a set of initiatives that governments across the globe should adapt. It includes: establishing an international council specializing in pandemic prevention; taking a one-health approach to pandemic preparedness; considering health impacts in development projects; implementing taxes on meat consumption and other high-risk activities; listing high disease-risk species (such as bats and primates) as illegal in the wildlife trade; cracking down on the $100 billion a year wildlife trade altogether; and valuing and incorporating Indigenous knowledge and concerns in pandemic prevention initiatives.

"I think the really important thing is understanding the scale at which we have to operate here," Hannah tells National Geographic. "This isn’t about pumping things up a notch; this is about taking things to a level they’ve never been taken before."

IPBES' proposed strategy estimates that it would cost between $40 and $58 million per year to adapt these recommendations, but they say it would easily outweigh the costs of pandemics. A recent study calculates that the Covid-19 pandemic has costed the United States alone $16 trillion—and counting—so far.

"This is classic public health—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Daszak tells The Guardian.

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