There is an urgent and major need for the world to learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and put more effort into stopping animal viruses leapfrogging into humans.
A new report from Harvard and international experts has warned unless the issue is urgent addressed the world is destined to suffer another major pandemic.
The key will be to prevent the spillover of pathogens from animals to people. The report provides recommendations for research and actions to forestall new pandemics that have largely been absent from high-level discussions about prevention, including a novel call to integrate conservation actions with strengthening healthcare systems globally.
The report from the Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, a collaborative convened by Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and the Harvard Global Health Initiative, was led by our Director, Dr Aaron Bernstein.
“Investments in outbreak control, such as diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines, are critical but inadequate to address pandemic risk,” it warned.
Spillover of possible pandemic pathogens occurs from livestock operations; wildlife hunting and trade; land use change—and the destruction of tropical forests in particular; expansion of agricultural lands, especially near human settlements; and rapid, unplanned urbanization. Climate change is also shrinking habitats and pushing animals on land and sea to move to new places, creating opportunities for pathogens to enter new hosts.
“No one wants to endure another pandemic the likes of COVID-19. Yet, the likelihood of another such pandemic occurring may be greater than ever,” warned the report. “The task force found that evidence strongly establishes spillover of viruses from wildlife into people, sometimes via livestock, as the root cause of pandemic risk.”
It added Investments in sustainable agriculture and in the prevention of crop and food waste are critical to reduce biodiversity losses, conserve water resources, and prevent further land use change while promoting food security and economic welfare.
Previous research by Dr Bernstein the team found that the costs of preventing the next pandemic—by reducing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade—are as little as $22 billion a year, 2% of the economic and mortality costs of responding to COVID-19.
It said the world needed to conserve tropical forests, especially in relatively intact forests as well as those that have been fragmented. There is a need to improve biosecurity for livestock and farmed wild animals, especially when animal husbandry occurs near large or rapidly expanding human populations.
The report said there was a requirement to “establish an intergovernmental partnership to address spillover risk from wild animals to livestock and people from aligned organizations such as FAO, WHO, OIE, UNEP, and Wildlife Enforcement Networks.
“In low- and middle-income countries, there is a need to leverage investments to strengthen healthcare systems and One Health platforms to jointly advance conservation, animal and human health, and spillover prevention.”
“The report makes clear that more must be learned to optimize where and when investments in spillover prevention interventions are made,” it added. “The effectiveness of interventions has been assessed in small studies, but it must be evaluated at scale, and with full consideration of their economic, ecological, and social welfare impacts.
“More research can help pinpoint where viral zoonoses with high pandemic risk may be most likely to emerge and how to better curtail risk of spillover within wildlife trade. Viral discovery in wildlife can help inform where spillover prevention activities should be focused while also benefiting wildlife conservation.”