No one wants more pandemics, but the likelihood of another one appearing is “greater than ever.” Land use change, the destruction of tropical forests, the expansion of agricultural land, the intensification of livestock, hunting, the wildlife trade, and rapid and unplanned urbanization are some of the factors influencing the spread of viruses with pandemic potential.
That’s the main conclusion of the report from the Scientific Task Force for Pandemic Prevention, a team created by the Harvard Institute for Global Health and the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In the paper, which brings together existing scientific evidence and provides recommendations for avoiding a new pandemic, the researchers warn that agriculture is associated with more than 50 percent of the zoonotic diseases that have affected humans since 1940. This figure poses challenges, as the report mentions that with the growth of the world’s population and the increase in food insecurity, it is urgent to invest in sustainable agriculture, conserve water resources, avoid further change in land use and reduce the loss of biodiversity.
“If we reforest, if we regulate wild animal markets, among others, we are helping to decrease the likelihood that these viruses — many that are not yet characterized — will reach humans. This is how we reduce the risk,” Marcos Espinal, director of Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health, of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), told Mongabay Latam. He has no doubts: working on prevention will reduce costs in economic, social and human lives.
There is concern among scientists about the change of landscape due to the presence of agriculture and livestock. Photo: Camila Gonzalez Archive.
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In 2020, 12.2 million hectares of tropical forests were lost in the world. This figure, presented this year by Global Forest Watch, demonstrates the challenge humanity faces and to which the report’s authors refer. Scientists propose investing in the conservation of tropical forests – especially those that are intact or in good condition – as one of the mandatory measures to avoid a new pandemic.
The reason? When animals are stripped of their territories they have to look for new places to live and thus opportunities are created for pathogens to look for new hosts. “When a forest is deforested, the animal leaves its habitat and tries to find a place where it can survive,” says Marcos Espinal, co-author of the research. That animal, which is not fully tested, may have viruses, have pathogens that one does not know.”
Ending forests creates an imbalance in an ecosystem that was previously in balance, causing large mammals to flee and leave species that adapt easily to transformed ecosystems, that reproduce faster and in less time, and that are known as synanthropic species. “Those remaining mammals have been seen to be good hosts. […] These changes unbalance the entire food chain and favor a group of organisms that have characteristics that make them very good hosts and can amplify viruses quickly,” explains Camila González Rosas, biologist, Doctor of Science and professor at the Center for Research in Microbiology and Tropical Parasitology of the Universidad de los Andes, to Mongabay Latam.
The report warns that animals such as bats, rodents and primates have been found to harbor a higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than other groups.
Camila González has studied the presence of pathogens in primates. Photo: Giovanni Randazzo.
Seeking substantive solutions, such as conserving tropical forests and halting biodiversity loss, will not only avoid the risk of a new pandemic, but will help meet urgent climate change targets, such as limiting the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5°C. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced by at least 45% by 2030 and eliminated by 2050, humanity will face a climate catastrophe.
“The actions to be taken to avoid a new pandemic are as forceful as those of climate change. Viruses are coming out because we’re doing things that we shouldn’tWe are doing. We abuse the ability of systems to be resilient and are aiming for a limit of no return. Things will hardly change as long as economic development remains above all priorities. It is not that different viruses are generated, simply what was contained in a natural balance, we are taking it out, “says González.
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The limit of the agricultural frontier
The Harvard University task force’s research also found that the spread of wildlife viruses to people, sometimes through livestock, is one of the main causes of pandemic risk. That conclusion makes sense to biologist Camila González, who explains that the more population density of animals is put into transformed ecosystems, the greater opportunities pathogens will have to get out and reach humans.
The focus of deforestation in Flor de Ucayali, Peru, begins on the border of this town with the hamlet Of Santa Sofía. Photo: Feconau.
“If you knock down the forest and put in a lot of animals, what you do is put up a highway for the pathogen to get out and get to humans. You give it a number of susceptible hosts to infect. […] With more hosts, the spread of the virus increases,” he says.
Therefore, another of the recommendations of Harvard scientists is to improve biosecurity for livestock and farm animals, especially when breeding is carried out near human settlements. “Forests, predation, the wild animal market and even the misuse of domestic animals – because there is, for example, human rabies transmitted by dogs – are factors that influence the likelihood of a pandemic. It is a confluence of factors,” says Espinal, highlighting that another challenge is the control of hunting and wild animal markets, where they kill wild animals and sell their meats without proper hygiene. These conditions favor the jump of possible pathogens to humans and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has already warned that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.
Strengthening sustainable agriculture and avoiding food waste will be key measures, the report said, to reduce biodiversity loss, conserve water resources and prevent further land-use changes, while promoting food security and economic well-being. In conclusion: be more productive with the resources you currently have, because although today food is produced for more than 10 billion people, almost a third of food is also wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Deforestation in colombia’s forests. Photo: Natura Foundation.
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Prevention costs less
Much is still unknown about the diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans or vice versa but Manish Kakkar, a public health specialist from New Delhi (India) and co-author of the research, believes that this is the opportunity to do more analysis that allows to develop specific strategies for each country, which aim to find substantive solutions and not just respond to an outbreak.
“I hope that the team’s recommendations will be carefully analyzed to be clear about the next steps and thus be better prepared for the next pandemic, because it is not a question of whether there will be another, but when it will happen,” says Kakkar.
While investments in the healthcare system, diagnostic tests, medicines and vaccines are important to contain disease outbreaks when they have already occurred, the report highlights that they do not solve the problem of spread or prevent the risk of a pandemic occurring. These measures are also insufficient and do not benefit all countries equally because, while in low-income countries less than 2% of people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Human Rights Watch, in rich countries they are already thinking about a third dose as a booster. “Even in the richest countries, vaccine coverage is far from reaching the levels needed to control the Delta variant,” the report said.
COVID-19 PCR tests for members of the Siekopai nationality, Bella Vista community, Siekopai Territory, Sucumbios, Ecuadorian Amazon, on April 29, 2020. Photo Luke Weiss / Amazon Frontlines and Ceibo Alliance.
Aaron Bernstein, Acting Director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and leader of the scientific working group, believes that taking solutions that address the underlying problem such as curbing the destruction of tropical forests and the loss of biodiversity, regulating the wild animal market, promoting sustainable agriculture and avoiding food waste, have multiple benefits. On the one hand, they are considerably cheaper; on the other, they will help stop the spread of diseases from animals to humans, as well as stabilize the planet’s climate and revitalize its biosphere. This will be essential not only for health but to maintain economic well-being, since, according to the scientist, COVID-19 caused a global loss estimated at about 40 billion dollars a year.
Bernstein says more than $6 trillion has now been spent on “warm water cloths.” “No matter how much we spend on vaccines, they will never be able to fully immunize us against future pandemics,” he says. In previous research, Bernstein has found that reducing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade costs $22 billion a year, representing only 2% of the economic and mortality costs the world invests today in response to COVID-19.
Finally, the report recommends taking advantage of investments in strengthening the health system to advance conservation. The Harvard researchers highlight that an example of success is Borneo, an Asian island where a decade of work reduced deforestation by 70%, provided access to health care for more than 28,400 people and substantially reduced malaria, tuberculosis and other common childhood diseases.
Fish killed by water pollution are a reflection of poor environmental health management in many Latin American teritorios. Photo: Siekopai nationality.
It will also be key, say the scientists, to take advantage of investments in health systems and support the platforms of One Health, a concept that alludes to seeking the balance between human, environmental and animal health. Only in this way, they say, will it be possible to advance together in conservation, health and the prevention of contagion.
“In this report we present all the evidence, but we also make recommendations, so that regional leaders, politicians and heads of state pay attention and try to invest, not only in the response to the pandemic, but also in prevention. It is clear that the main investment that humanity must make to get to the root of the problems is to protect the natural world, on this depends health and economic well-being, “concludes Marcos Espinal.
This article was originally published on Mongabay Latin America
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