Expect more frequent future pandemics warn leading scientists

Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, warns a major new report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world.

The report, produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), suggests that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention.

IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body comprising more than 130-member governments established in 2012.

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918, and although it reportedly has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities, says the report.

Indeed, it is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds – of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr Peter Daszak, chair of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.”

“Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions, according to the IPBES. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spill-over of new diseases.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

The report says that relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and technological solutions, in particular the rapid design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics, is a “slow and uncertain path”, underscoring both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy of reacting to pandemics.

Pointing to the likely cost of COVID-19 of $8-16 trillion globally by July 2020, it is further estimated that costs in the United States alone may reach as high as $16 trillion by the 4th quarter of 2021. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.”

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are:

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases
  • predicting high-risk areas
  • evaluating the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps.

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