Protect nature and animals or face more pandemics, scientists warn

Empty street in England, photo: Dan Burton on Unsplash
Empty street in England, photo: Dan Burton on Unsplash

Future pandemics will emerge more often, cost more and kill more people than COVID-19 without bold actions to stop deforestation and wildlife trade that help viruses jump from animals to humans, according to a report published on Thursday.

The report, published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), states that actions to stop deforestation and ban the trade in wildlife animals could prevent future deadly pandemics.

The group found that there are between 540,000 to 850,000 unknown viruses in nature that could infect people.

Activities such as trading in wildlife, poaching or clearing forest to keep farm animals or grow soy or palm oil can bring humans and viruses into closer proximity. Scientists say COVID-19 probably originated in bats and began spreading among humans at a market in China.

“It turns out that by doing something about pandemics, we are also doing something about climate change and biodiversity, and that’s a good thing,” Peter Daszak, a zoologist who chaired the study by 22 international experts, told Reuters.

Prevention would be 100 times cheaper than the cost of responding to pandemics, but governments so far mostly rely on reactive measures such as vaccines, the report found. It called for greater international collaboration to control the risks.

John Spicer, a marine zoologist at Britain’s University of Plymouth, welcomed the focus on pandemics, biodiversity and climate: “Transformative change is what is required and this is what the report puts forward.”

The global cost of COVID-19 was estimated at $8-16 trillion by July. The cost in the United States alone could reach up to $16 trillion by late next year, the report said.

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