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Environmental disruption could cause more pandemics – Expert Reaction

An international report looks at the link between the degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks.

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics also tallies the economic costs of pandemics, and offers options for governments and decision-makers to ‘escape the era of pandemics.’

The SMC asked experts to comment on the report.

Professor David Hayman, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, comments:

Note: Professor Hayman is a lead co-author on the IPBES Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics.

“All the recent major infectious disease outbreaks that make the headlines, from COVID to Ebola to HIV/AIDS have their origins in wildlife. For these infections to emerge, there needs to be a chain of events the links the infected animals to the outbreaks and subsequent spread of these viruses. In this report we highlight the scientific evidence that shows the things we do, as people, that increase the chances of more outbreaks in the future are the same as those that drive climate change and biodiversity loss, the global loss of species, such as clearing tropical forests.

“In the report we highlight there are solutions to prevent all these, but they require transformative change in how we think about preventing infectious diseases and our interactions with our environment. We, as societies, need to start thinking more about what is the value of an intact, healthy habitat, compared to the monetary value of a piece of timber, and also start to consider the costs to society for the way we use the Earth’s resources, and include the potential for disease emergence in to those.

“We present some ideas for policy makers that could help begin those changes, such as incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects, reforming financial aid, and including the economic cost of pandemics into production systems and government policies and budgets.”

The following comments have been gathered by the UK Science Media Centre. Full comments are available here.

Prof John Spicer, Professor of Marine Zoology, University of Plymouth, comments:

“Overall, this report highlights that our COVID-19 crisis is not just another crisis alongside others – the biodiversity crisis and the climate change crisis. Make no mistake, this is one big crisis – the greatest that humans have ever faced. And it’s not going to be averted by talk, tinkering or pretending it’s ‘fake news’ – this latest IPBES Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics report makes that crystal clear.

“You cannot tackle one aspect without tackling the others – they are interconnected, inextricable, inescapable… and imminent. Transformative change is what is required and this is what the report puts forward, echoing last year’s IPBES Biodiversity report by the same group – the sort of ‘impossible’ change that ironically characterised 2020, thrust upon us by COVID-19.

“So this report is a document of hope, not despair. The report suggests options and enabling mechanisms for our directing that change rather than having it thrust upon us. Forestalling future pandemics by implementing a number of what would be seen as biodiversity initiatives – controlling change in land use and tackling issues with the wildlife trade. The question is not can we, but will we.”

No conflicts declared.

Dr Liam Brierley, MRC Skills Development Fellow, University of Liverpool, comments:

“This work highlights the importance of human activities that contribute to the emergence of new viral diseases, and draws attention to the fact that viruses continually jump species from animals to humans. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, is just one of these, and predicting the next pandemic in advance is challenging because we still know so little about the complete diversity of wild animal viruses.

“A path forward highlighted by this report is a more structured system that does not just limit these human activities, but also holistically involves better surveillance, economic strategies, and supports communities of people most likely to have contact with wild animals at the local level.

“COVID-19 has reminded us that approaches to pandemics need to be proactive rather than reactive – preparation and prevention is a much safer and more cost-effective strategy than only addressing outbreaks once they’ve already begun. This report paves the way for a more successful pandemic control strategy.”

No conflicts declared.

Prof Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity, University College London, comments:

“These costs are necessarily speculative of course but seem reasonable given the current disruption to our lives across the world. The international community knows how costly infectious disease outbreaks are, else how do you explain why they put things like pandemic flu at the top of their risk registers. What we need now is global leaders to act.”

No conflicts declared.

Dr Mike Rivington, Climate Change Scientist in Information and Computational Sciences, The James Hutton Institute, comments:

“The IPBES report is absolutely right in showing why prevention is so much better than cure, and that the cost of prevention is considerably less than those of the impacts. Whilst there may be a cure for COVID-19 in the future, there is not a cure for climate change and biodiversity loss if these pass critical tipping points. Preventing climate change and biodiversity loss and altering the focus of our food systems from efficiency to resilience will substantially reduce future risks from pandemics and ecosystem degradation.”

No conflicts declared.