Future pandemics could be prevented if unsustainable practices like deforestation and the industrial-scale wildlife trade are halted, according to a global biodiversity report. The cost of doing so would be paid back many times over, simply because our society wouldn’t have to go through another pandemic.
Millions of people are living or working in close contact with wild animals that carry diseases, and these industries aren’t properly regulated. The more people cut down forests for farmland, for example, the more they are pushing into animals’ habitats and thus coming into regular contact with disease-carrying wildlife.
Controlling the global wildlife trade and reducing land-use change would cost $40-58 billion per year, the report says. That is a lot, but the covid-19 pandemic is estimated to have cost the global economy $8-16 trillion by July. In total, pandemics cost $1 trillion per year – including treatment costs and economic and productivity losses – including the ongoing HIV and influenza pandemics.
“It’s a really incredible efficient economic return on investment we’re going to see if we can do this right,” says report author Peter Daszak at EcoHealth Alliance in New York.
The report was published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Almost every known pandemic disease came from an animal, says Daszak. Covid-19 came from bats in China. “HIV emerged from the hunting of chimpanzees,” he says, and the recent African Ebola outbreak stemmed from the hunting of wild primates.
Many of the most harmful practices are driven by consumption practices in the West. “The reason roads are being built in the rainforests of Indonesia is to supply palm oil,” says Daszak. Palm oil is used in many food products, including packaged bread, ice cream and peanut butter.
Another issue is wild animals sold for pets and food, which are only tested for a handful of diseases. “The US is one of the biggest importers of wildlife,” he says.
Studies of antibodies in people in China suggest that more than a million people every year are infected through bats with coronaviruses related to the one fuelling the current pandemic, says Daszak. The vast majority of these exposures don’t cause major outbreaks, but each carries a risk.
“There’s this huge population that’s exposed at a gigantic scale across the region,” he says. “It’s people who live near bat caves, who shelter in bat caves to get out of the rain, who hunt and eat bats, who use bat faeces for medicine, who spread bat faeces on crops to fertilise them.”
Live wildlife markets, like the one that was implicated in the early spread of covid-19, are also a factor if they aren’t well run. Often multiple species are housed together in close quarters, and the stall owners live on site with their families. “There are many ways you could make that more secure,” says Daszak.
The report will feed into the next major meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is taking place in China in 2021 after having been postponed due to the pandemic, says Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES. The meeting will set global biodiversity goals for the next decade.
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