The reduction of deforestation and the exploitation of wildlife are the first measures to be taken to cut the chain of disease appearance.
In late 2013, in the village of Meliandou, in rural Guinea, a group of children playing near a hollow tree came across a small colony of bats that inhabited its interior. Scientists believe that Emile Ouamouno, who later became the first tragic case of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, likely came in contact with bat feces while playing near the tree.
Every pandemic starts that way. A supposedly innocuous human activity, such as eating wild animals, can cause an outbreak that leads to a pandemic. In the 1920s, when the rise of HIV was estimated, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, scientists believe that transmission to humans could have been caused by a bushmeat hunter who cut himself by killing a chimpanzee. In 2019, we can speculate that a person from southwestern China entered a bat cave near their village to hunt wildlife to sell at the local wet market. Perhaps he later developed a persistent cough that represents the beginning of what we now know as Covid-19. Now, a growing human population, increasing development, and a globalized travel and trade network have accelerated the pace of the onset of the pandemic. We are entering a new pandemic era.
Where are pandemics believed to originate?
Most pandemics start in the world's emerging disease foci; the edges of forests in regions such as West Africa, the Amazon Basin and Southeast Asia. Rainforests are home to a rich diversity of wild fauna and flora, which in turn carry a wide variety of viruses. We know much more about these animals than about the viruses they carry. It is estimated that there are 1.7 million viruses in mammals and birds (the origins of most pandemics), but less than 0.1% have been described. They spread to millions of people each year; Although they often do not cause noticeable symptoms, the sheer volume of viruses means that many can.
Before humans became an agricultural species, our populations were scarcer and less connected. A virus that infects a hunter-gatherer could reach only family members or perhaps a group of hunters. But Anthropocene, our new geological epoch has changed everything. A great acceleration in human activity has dramatically altered our planet's landscapes, oceans and atmosphere, transforming up to half of the world's tropical forests into agriculture and human settlements.
About one third of emerging diseases They are the product of these rapid changes in land use, as people are pushed into contact with wildlife that was rarely encountered before. Emerging viruses, such as Zika, Ebola and Nipah, include the latest of our enemies, Covid-19, transported from China's disturbed rural landscape to a nearby city.
Human activity has created a continuous cycle of viral shedding and spread. Our current approach is to wait for outbreaks to start, and then design drugs or vaccines to control them. But as we have seen with Covid-19, this approach is not enough: while we wait for a vaccine, hundreds of thousands of people have died, and millions have been infected. When the United States produced enough doses to vaccinate against the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, the virus had already infected about a quarter part of the population of our planet.
If we want to prevent future pandemics, we will have to reevaluate our relationship with nature, blocking every step in the chain of disease emergence. This should start with reducing the rampant consumption that drives deforestation and the exploitation of wildlife. We will also have to remove viral risk species from wildlife markets, crack down on the illegal wildlife trade, and work with communities to find alternatives. We should put more pressure on industries that harvest tropical timber and wildlife products, rewarding business sustainability and legislating against overconsumption. Consumer-led campaigns against palm oil, for example, have had a ripple effect on sustainability.
In a recently published documentSeveral scientists, including myself, made the economic case for preventing the spread of the disease that leads to pandemics by reducing deforestation and the wildlife trade. We estimate that the annual costs of programs to reduce deforestation and wildlife trade and create pandemic surveillance in disease hotbeds would be $ 17.7-26.9 billion, more than three orders of magnitude less than the current estimated cost of economic damage from Covid-19, from 8.1-15.8tn. Our costs include the co-benefits of carbon sequestration by reducing forest loss. While the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the world economy, our current trajectory could see the cost of future pandemics skyrocket into the tens of trillions.
As we rebuild our economies after the coronavirus pandemic, instead of reverting to the rampant consumption system that Covid-19 brought us, we have the opportunity to green our economies. Centuries of environmental exploitation have put us in a fragile position on this planet. While some may resist the costs of avoiding environmental collapse, or do not understand the value of preserving a species of butterfly, frog, or fish, most of us recognize that Covid-19 has brought death and economic misery on a global scale. Once we accept that human activity is what has led to this, we can finally have the power to escape the pandemic era.
By Peter Daszak
President of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to analyzing and preventing pandemics.