According to the UN, preventing pandemics through the fight against the climate crisis is a hundred times cheaper than dealing with outbreaks such as Covid.
In the future, in Spain as in the rest of the world, pandemics will emerge more frequently, spread faster, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people than the Covid-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to tackling infectious diseases, warns a new report of the Intergovernmental Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The majority (70%) of the emerging diseases (such as Ebola, Zika, or Nipah encephalitis) and almost all known pandemics, such as influenza and HIV/AIDS, are zoonotic, that is, they are caused by microbes of animal origin. These microbes are spread due to contact between wildlife, livestock, and people.
The experts warn that another 1.7 million currently “undiscovered” viruses live in mammals and birds, of which up to 850,000 They might have the ability to infect humans.
Covid-19 is at least the sixth pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and, although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals like all the previous ones, its appearance has been driven entirely by human activities, says the study.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic or any modern pandemic. The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also generate pandemic risk through its impacts on our environment,” warned Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop from which the report emerged.
According to Daszak, changes in the way we use the land, the expansion and intensification of farming, and trade, production and unsustainable consumption, disturb nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. “This is the path to pandemics,” he asserted.
And it is that scientists explain that the risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people each year, any one of which has the potential to spread and become a pandemic.
Unsustainable exploitation of the environment due to land use change, expansion and intensification of agriculture, wildlife trade and consumption, and other factors, disrupts natural interactions between wildlife and their microbes, increases contact between wildlife, livestock, people and their pathogens, increasing the risk of the appearance of new viruses in humans.
Likewise, climate change has been implicated in the appearance of diseases (for example, encephalitis transmitted by ticks in scandinavia) and will likely cause substantial future pandemic risk by driving the movement of people, wildlife, reservoirs and vectors, and the spread of their pathogens, in ways that lead to new or increased interspecies contact. It can also alter the natural dynamics of the host and the pathogen.
Furthermore, biodiversity loss associated with landscape transformation may lead to increased risk of emerging diseases in some cases, where species that are well adapted to human-dominated landscapes may also harbor pathogens that present a high risk of zoonotic transmission.
Pathogens from wildlife, livestock, and people can also directly threaten biodiversity and emerge through the same activities that drive disease risk in people. For example, the occurrence of chytridiomycosis, a fungal infection in amphibians which appeared all over the world due to the wildlife trade.
Wildlife farming has expanded substantially, particularly in China before Covid-19, where the breeding of “non-traditional animals” generated 77 billion dollars and employed 14 million people in 2016.
Agriculture, trade and consumption of wildlife and wildlife products (for food, medicine, fur and other products) have led to biodiversity loss and emerging diseases, such as SARS and Covid-19.
The report indicates that pandemics and other emerging zoonoses cause widespread human suffering and more than a trillion dollars in economic damages a year. This is in addition to the continuing burden to human health from other ailments that have appeared historically.
Experts say the true impact of Covid-19 on the global economy can only be accurately assessed once vaccines are fully deployed and transmission between populations is contained. However, its cost has been estimated between 8 to 16 billion dollars Worldwide by July 2020 and may reach 16 billion in the United States alone by the fourth quarter of 2021 (assuming an effective vaccine already exists).
The study outlines global strategies to prevent pandemics, based on reducing wildlife trade, changing land use and increasing surveillance, which would cost between 40,000 and 50,000 million dollars a year, much less than what a pandemic costs.
“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion. We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are addressing them right now ignores this tool. Our focus has stalled: we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapies. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires much greater focus on prevention plus backlash,” added Daszak, one of the report’s authors.
For the expert, the fact that human activity has been able to change the natural environment in such a fundamental way does not always have to be seen in a negative way. “It also provides convincing evidence of our power to drive needed change to reduce the risk of future pandemics, while benefiting conservation and reducing climate change,” he said.
The report stresses that relying on responses to diseases after they have emerged, such as public health measures and technological solutions, in particular the rapid design and delivery of new vaccines and therapeutics, is a “slow and uncertain road”, underscoring both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy from reacting to pandemics.
The risk of a pandemic is driven by anthropogenic changes that increase exponentially, therefore, blaming wildlife for the appearance of diseases is wrong, because the emergence is caused by human activities and the impacts of these activities on the environment.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and experience in informing policy and decision-making,” said Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES.