Declare: UN report says as much as 850,000 animal viruses may very well be caught by people, until we defend nature

Claim: UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic. For example, the virus that causes COVID-19 is linked to similar viruses in bats that may have been transmitted to humans through pangolins or another species.

Environmental degradation such as clearing, deforestation, climate change, intensive agriculture and the trade in wild animals bring people into closer contact with wild animals. Animals carry microbes that can be transmitted to humans during these encounters.

A main report released today says that up to 850,000 undetected viruses that could be transmitted to humans exist in mammalian and avian hosts.

The report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) states that humans urgently need to change our relationship with the environment in order to avoid future pandemics.

Covid-19 graphicCovid-19 graphicMicrobes can be transmitted from animals to humans and cause disease pandemics. Shutterstock

The cost to people is increasing

The report is the result of a one-week virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. A review of the scientific findings shows:

… Pandemics are becoming increasingly common due to a sustained increase in the underlying emerging disease events that they trigger. Without prevention strategies, pandemics will occur more frequently, spread faster, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating effects than ever before.

According to the report, an average of five new diseases are transmitted from animals to humans each year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpanzees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first broke out in a Brisbane racing team in 1994).

According to the report, an estimated 1.7 million currently undetected viruses exist in mammalian and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect people.

Rather than making pandemic outbreak prevention a priority, governments around the world are focusing primarily on responding – through early detection, containment, and hope for rapid development of vaccines and drugs.

Doctor giving an injection to the patientDoctor giving an injection to the patientGovernments are focusing more on pandemic responses like vaccine development than on prevention. Shutterstock

As the report states, COVID-19 shows:

… It is a slow and insecure path, and as the world's population waits for vaccines to become available, the human cost of lost lives, ongoing disease, economic collapse and livelihoods increases.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – leading, for example, to large culls of identified carrier species. Tens of thousands of wildlife were killed in China following the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be tracked after the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the report, women and indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women make up more than 70% of the social and health workforce worldwide, and previous pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous peoples, often due to geographical isolation.

Read more: The next global health pandemic could easily break out in your garden

It's said that pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have passed from animals to humans) are likely to cause more than $ 1 trillion in economic damage annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at $ 8 to $ 16 trillion worldwide. The cost of preventing the next pandemic is likely to be 100 times lower.

People wearing masks in a crowdPeople wearing masks in a crowdThe cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention. Shutterstock

One way forward

The IPBES report shows possible ways. These include:

• Increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, which could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• Global Implementation of OneHealth Policies – guidelines on human health, animal health and the environment that are integrated, not "isolated" and viewed in isolation

• Reducing land use change by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial barriers such as taxes on meat consumption

• Measures to reduce wildlife trade and related risks, such as B. Increased hygiene and safety in wildlife markets, increased biosecurity measures and increased enforcement of illegal trade.

A change in social and individual behavior will also be required. The exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has resulted in recurring diseases from less developed countries where the goods are manufactured.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? The measures proposed in the report include:

  • Educational policy
  • Labeling of consumption patterns with a high pandemic risk, e.g. B. Captive wild animals for sale as pets, either "wild-caught" or "captive bred", with information on the country in which they were bred or caught
  • Create incentives for sustainable behavior
  • Increase food security to reduce the need for wildlife.

People inspecting the transportation of wildlife productsPeople inspecting the transportation of wildlife productsCombating the illegal trade in wildlife will help prevent pandemics. AP

An Australian answer

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and has therefore made an informal and non-binding commitment to follow its scientific and political findings.

However, there is no guarantee that the recommendations of the IPBES report will be accepted as the Australian government has recently failed to take stock of the environment.

For example, in recent months the government has refused to sign the Leaders' Pledge for Nature. The promise initiated by the United Nations includes the obligation to adopt a one-health approach in the formulation of strategies and decisions, in which health and environmental sustainability are considered together.

The government has cut funding for environmental study courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce the so-called "green band" in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic is being led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.

Read more: New polls show 79% of Aussies are interested in climate change. Why isn't the government listening?

After all, Australia is one of the few countries without a national disease control and pandemic center.

But there are good reasons for hope. It is within Australia's scope to build an organization that focuses on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world and Australians are ready to protect it. In addition, many investors believe that proper environmental policies will support Australia's economic recovery.

After all, we have tons of passionate experts and traditional owners ready to do the hard work in policy design and implementation.

As this new report shows, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the ability to prevent them.

Katie Woolaston, Attorney at Queensland University of Technology; and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia at the Institute of Agriculture

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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