Pascual author of new IPBES report on escaping the Pandemic Era

Related GLP Member: Unai Pascual

Editor's note: The following article was first published on the Future Earth website. SSC Member Unai Pascual was one of the report's 22 authors.

Escaping from the current ‘Pandemic Era’ requires a radical revision of governmental, economic, and societal systems, warns a new report from 22 global experts. Pandemics represent an existential threat to human communities, yet, due to anthropogenic disturbances, disease outbreaks are increasing in frequency, and pathogens now harbor more capacity to spread and kill. This workshop report comes at a critical juncture of the COVID-19 pandemic as confirmed cases are on the rise in countries around the world and the economic toll continues to increase.

The new report, published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), reviews the scientific evidence on the origin, emergence, and impact of COVID-19 and provides options for controlling and preventing future pandemics. The human effects associated with an increased risk of pandemic emergence include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption – behaviors that increase the human-to-wild interface. Experts find that pandemics disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, women, and indigenous peoples, underscoring the threat posed by disease outbreaks to humanity’s well-being. Avoiding disease emergence will require transformative societal change that moves beyond business-as-usual and aims to prevent rather than react to disease outbreaks. 

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land, the expansion and intensification of agriculture, and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

The first step in curtailing pandemic risk is to slow unsustainable human disruption and consumption practices. Seventy percent of emerging diseases and nearly all known pandemics are considered zoonotic, or arising from microbes of animal origin, and millions of ‘undiscovered’ viruses remain in animal hosts. Activities such as wildlife trade and agricultural expansion increase the contact between humans, livestock, and wildlife, driving the likelihood of disease emergence upwards. Further, climate change will likely increase the movement of disease reservoirs and the spread of pathogens. Experts warn that biodiversity loss will also drive the growth of species well-adapted to human-dominated landscapes and more capable of carrying pathogens. Disease outbreaks can affect non-human organisms, too, accelerating the collapse of biodiversity. 

While the threats loom large, this report provides strategies for reducing the likelihood of a pandemic event: slow land-use change and wildlife trade activity, and increase governmental and intergovernmental oversight. One Health proposes several disease surveillance and prevention tactics costing between $22 and 31.2 billion – less if calculations include the benefits of carbon sequestration. Further, the costs of preventing disease emergence pale in comparison to the economic losses brought about by pandemics and emerging zoonoses, estimated at more than a trillion dollars every year. COVID-19 has already caused between $8 and 16 trillion in damages globally. The risk of disease and economic devastation can be reduced by ceasing the unsustainable consumption of products from known hotspot areas and livestock operations, conserving high-biodiversity regions, and promoting responsible consumption practices.

The expansion of anthropogenic activities such as deforestation has caused the emergence of more than 30% of new diseases since 1960, effects that will be accentuated by the synergistic effects of climate change. Human health must be a key consideration as human populations expand, and as land-use change increases.

While the wildlife trade is economically and culturally significant to many communities globally, regulations to surveil trading activities — and the subsequent spread of disease — are limited in scope. The illegal trade and consumption of mammalian and avian wildlife increase disease emergence, and regulations that monitor wildlife markets are well-needed. 

Rather than curbing diseases after they emerge, future pandemic preparedness must involve disease prevention. Reacting to rather than preparing for disease entails negative implications for biodiversity; reactionary strategies may include culling wildlife reservoirs and the release of insecticides. Countries should cooperate to form an intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention, with the aim of constructing disease-relevant policy, evaluating economic impacts, highlighting critical research, and creating frameworks, goals, and targets to be met by participating countries. International agreements should hinge upon institutionalizing One Health in national governments, integrating the cost of disease into budgets, and generating green bonds and green economic recovery. 

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

Policies designed to prevent pathogen emergence should play a key role in building international agreements. Importantly, policy should aim to educate vulnerable communities about the key risk behaviors and factors associated with disease emergence. Where wildlife trade occurs, there should be thorough surveillance of the hunters, farmers, and traders involved. Underscoring all relevant policy maneuvers should be adequate law enforcement and collaboration. Analyzing pathogen’s evolutionary mechanisms, evaluating the impact of climate change upon disease emergence, and identifying undiscovered microbial diversity are essential components of effective policy. 

Notably, all people have a role to play in reducing pandemic risk. All sectors of society, particularly young people, should be educated on the behaviors that lead to the highest risk of disease emergence. By providing people with incentives to sustainable alternatives, such as responsible meat consumption, and disincentives to dangerous practices, such as livestock production, we can significantly slow or end the emergence of disease into the human population.