When it comes to pandemics, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure
For more than 18 months now, COVID 19 has impacted our lives and the lives of our loved ones, affecting our health and daily quality of life. However, most of us are still not aware that the reason behind this pandemic can be linked to our long term, unbalanced relationship with nature. Human activities that have led to climate change and biodiversity loss are also increasing our vulnerability to pandemics. Deforestation, intensive farming, wildlife trade and consumption are increasing the risk of diseases spreading from animals to humans. In fact, 30% of emerging disease events globally can be attributed to land-use change, agricultural expansion and urbanization.
WWF has been working to address the root causes of pandemics for decades; working to halt deforestation, illegal wildlife trade and other drivers of zoonoses. The science was already clear, experts had warned us for a long time; a pandemic was long expected, but preventative measures were globally severely lacking. With the risk of a new zoonotic disease emerging in the future higher than ever — an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts — of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people, it is crucial to employ preventative measures to reduce the risk of future zoonosis “spilling over” to humans.
This week the world’s leading experts and politicians are gathering at the World Health Summit in Berlin, to discuss global challenges and responsibilities in health including pandemics. About a month following the Summit, at the end of November, the World Health Assembly will come together to discuss whether or not to create a treaty on Preparation for Pandemics. These conversations will include very important topics such as early warning systems, and faster deployment of vaccines. However, if attention is not paid, it will miss a very important part of the equation; Prevention. Prevention is our most economical and straightforward protection against new pandemics. Experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics. However prevention is usually forgotten in preparation, as the results are not visible in numbers and hard to prove or quantify.
The current thinking around pandemics, including discussions in the World Health Assembly, is skewed towards preparation for and reaction to the pandemics, which on its own assumes that all we can do is minimise spreading once an outbreak occurs. However, any discussion around a pandemics treaty must explicitly include prevention mechanisms, including tackling pandemics at their source, and addressing key drivers such as high-risk wildlife trade and rampant deforestation. If we want to reduce our vulnerability to future pandemics, first we need to make sure we heal our relationship with nature.
For more information on WWF’s research into public reaction to COVID 19, and understanding of the root causes — see HERE