A new study emphasizes that preventing the next global pandemic means taking a hard look at humanity’s intentional actions toward animals and the earth — including deforestation, a massive and poorly regulated wildlife trade, and rapidly expanding agribusiness — and doing better.
While that solution might not be “simple,” the authors argue it’s worth it. Changing the way we treat the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants would not only combat climate change and species extinction, but would also save millions of dollars and human lives in the process, according to the study.
The study, published in Science Advances, argues that the current international approach to preventing the next pandemic relies too heavily on actions taken after a virus jumps from its host species to humans, in what’s known as a spillover event— as is believed to have happened with COVID-19, HIV, Ebola, SARS, and Avian flu.
Too often, major health plans are reactive and overlook humanity’s key role in contributing to conditions that lead to fatal disease, the study says.
“Our alterations to the ecosystem and the environment are what’s causing these outbreaks,” Colin Chapman, a conservation scientist at George Washington University, told EcoBusiness. “We knew the pandemic was coming. But we didn’t have the will to do something to slow down the chances of an emergence.”
The report notes that pandemic’s highest risk factors — including the massive destruction of forests, intensive large-scale agriculture operations, and a trade in wildlife — have been known for decades.
Scientists also have established that actions completely within humanity’s capability — including saving forests from mining, ranching, and clearcutting, and minimizing contact between wild animals, domesticated animals (including cattle), and humans — could make a major difference.
The study’s authors analyzed the rate at which new zoonotic viruses emerged over the last 100 years and their associated cost in terms of lives lost and economic damage. They concluded that epidemics likely will take 3.3 million human lives each year and an associated $350 billion to $21 trillion in yearly economic loss.
Preventing just 10 percent of those deaths could be worth up to $2 trillion, the authors note.
While change comes with a cost, the researchers estimate it would cost as little as $1.5 billion to $9.6 billion a year to reduce deforestation by half in high-risk areas, while the cost of mitigating spillover from wildlife to livestock would run $476 million to $852 million, they said.
“With relatively inexpensive measures, we can greatly reduce the odds of having another event like this,” said Duke University Conservation Scientist Stuart Pimm. “Prevention is a lot cheaper than a cure.”