Spanish flu, bird flu, Marburg virus, Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, Nipah, West Nile, Sars, Chikungunya, Zika and Covid-19. That is just a partial history of the viruses that have spilled over from animals to humans in the last century.
The outbreaks are coming more frequently, as humanity’s growing population drives its destructive path further into wild areas. An average of 3 million people a year die from these zoonotic diseases.
But the world’s focus on preventing the next pandemic has so far been confined to boosting the detection of new diseases after they have infected humans and speeding the development and rollout of vaccines. That is of course necessary, but it is not sufficient.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, there have been repeated warnings that action to stop spillovers at source is also vital, and extremely cost-effective. That means ending the destruction of forests that brings people and wildlife into contact, and a crackdown on the wildlife trade. Inaction has left the world playing an “ill-fated game of Russian roulette with pathogens”, experts say, and protecting nature is vital to escape an “era of pandemics”.
But tacking spillover is not mentioned in reports and strategies from the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), a joint initiative of the World Bank and the World Health Organization, or from a G20 high-level panel on financing for pandemic preparedness.
A new report from experts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature provides another angle on the issue. While all zoonotic diseases ultimately come from wildlife, the IUCN report says few spillover into people directly. More commonly the diseases transfer via livestock, or animals like rats that thrive in places despoiled by humans.
So culling wildlife could not be justified, and could perversely make viruses spread more rapidly and animals flee. The IUCN report also says its examination of the scientific evidence suggests that tougher rules, or a ban, on the trade in wildlife would not have much impact on preventing future epidemics. Such moves could also harm the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities, unless alternative ways to make a living are provided.
But the IUCN report comes to the same broad conclusion as the previous reports: preventing increasing rates of outbreaks is feasible, especially if “primordial prevention issues, rather than just preparedness and rapid response” are addressed. “The challenge rests in better understanding how our domesticated animals and human-dominated landscapes create opportunities for the emergence of infectious diseases,” says Jon Paul Rodríguez, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
So what is the livestock industry doing to cut pandemic risk? Not nearly enough, according to another new report, which rates two-thirds of 60 major meat, dairy and fish companies as “high risk”. The analysis is based on seven, criteria including welfare conditions for both animals and workers, waste management and deforestation.
“Intensive farming environments, housing most of the 70 billion farm animals reared every year, are a known breeding ground for disease,” says Jeremy Coller, chair of the FAIRR Initiative, which produced the report and is backed by investors managing $48 trillion of assets.
“Aggravating factors like low genetic diversity, cramped enclosures and poor conditions for workers that do not offer adequate sick pay amplify [the pandemic] risk many times over,” he said. “It’s time for meat companies and policymakers to learn from Covid-19 and to invest in preventing the next pandemic.”
Another take on pandemic risk is on its way from Bill Gates in his new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic. “The plan is three elements,” he says. “First is to constantly improve health systems. The second is to build a global pathogen surveillance capacity so that no matter which country it shows up in, we can apply resources and understand what’s going on very quickly. And finally, innovation across diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines that will get us far better tools far quicker than we did this time.”
“I think it’s exciting that we have this opportunity to use our best ideas to stop pandemics for good,” Gates concludes. But there’s no mention of what is to my mind the very best idea of all – trying to stop pandemics at the source. The same was already true of reports from the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), a joint initiative of the World Bank and the World Health Organization, and from a G20 high-level panel on financing for pandemic preparedness.
Tackling the root of the issue by protecting forests and wildlife would cost just a tiny fraction of the terrible losses caused by pandemics, and such action is of course already vital for ending both the climate and biodiversity emergencies. “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity,” said Albert Einstein.
But the world has yet to grasp the opportunity presented by Covid-19.