Covid-19: biodiversity’s ‘code red for humanitty’

Posted on March 30, 2022

As the world begins to breathe more freely as the Covid19 pandemic apparently starts to ease, attention is beginning to turn to the prevention of future zoonotic pandemics. The much-delayed face-to-face UN Biodiversity Conference – officially the Fifteenth Convention on Biosocial Diversity (CBD) is due to open in Kunming, China on 25 April, having been postponed twice, from its original date in October 2020. If the Covid19 pandemic really is shifting into epidemic mode ie we have to learn to live with it, like a more dangerous version of season flu, an optimistic interpretation when 40% of the world’s population have yet to receive a single Covid protecting injection, then its rescheduling is timely. While there have been some wild theories about Covid19 being a ‘lab escape’ from a virology research centre in Wuhan, China, the consensus is that Covid19, like its dangerous predecessors, Sars, Mers, Ebola and HIV are all zoonotic in origin, the result of pressures on wild animal habitats leading to diseases jumping species to humans.

One particularly powerful piece of research published in Science Advances (1) by Prof Aaron Bernstein at the Harvard School of Public Health and his international team takes a critical view of the current international public policy responses to Covid19. It argues that money spent on prevention rather than cure is money well spent; indeed that it would be likely to cost at most just one twentieth of the cost of clearing up the mess afterwards. Their abstract sums up this view:  ‘Prominent policymakers have promoted plans that argue the best ways to address future pandemic catastrophes should entail ‘detecting and containing emerging zoonotic threats’. In other words we should take action only after humans get sick. We sharply disagree.’ Strong words from scientists.

What do Bernstein and his colleagues suggest?  Their argument is that stopping the destruction of nature is the key, because the destruction of nature brings humans and wildlife into greater contact and results in ‘spillover’. Their critique is that current approaches by global bodies and governments focus only on preventing the spread of new viruses once they have infected humans rather than tackling the root cause. They calculate that 3.3 million people die annually from viral zoonotic diseases and estimate the value of those lost lives at a minimum of $350 billion a year with a further $212 billion in direct economic losses.  Their argument is that around $20 billion per annum investment in ‘primary pandemic prevention’ these losses of both human life and economic potential could be avoided and that the investment could provide substantial co-benefits.  Their public health perspctive on the solutions to the crisis will sound familiar to practitioners engaged in climate and biodiversity mitigation and restoration – all of which they reckon will help avoid carbon emissions, conserve water supplies, protect indigenous people’s rights and conserve biodiversity -those co-benefits.

First, being public health professionals interested in prevention rather than cure (they take aim at both the WHO and the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, a G20 high level panel for financing pandemic preparedness which doesn’t even mention spillover in its strategies) they argue for better surveillance of pathogens that may spill from animals to people, especially more vets in ‘spillover hotspots’  to monitor for emerging diseases in both wildlife and livestock.  Better management of wildlife trade and hunting is the second step. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is identified as a key agency whose budget and personnel need substantial beefing up and enabling, to conduct research, monitoring and enforcement to reduce risky trade. Third, a significant reduction in deforestation, particularly in the tropics and especially in Amazonia, as it brings people into contact with animals as they enter the forests to clear them for agriculture, timber, mining etc. Smaller forests close to densely populated settlements are another major cause for concern. Unsurprisingly this leads on to a call for significant reform of agricultural practices to reverse land conversion and reduce the demand for ‘less sustainable food’ –  a reference no doubt to large scale cattle ranching.  They link all these issues to rapid and unplanned urbanization and climate change, which together are shrinking habitats and pushing animals on land and sea to move to new places, creating opportunities for new pathogens to enter new hosts.

When the UN Biodiversity Conference wraps up in mid-May it will be interesting to see how seriously this COP15 has taken these points. Biodiversity is complex and all encompassing – human life, and indeed all life in Earth relies on it, but the salutary experience of Covid19 and the need for prevention of future pandemics is biodiversity’s ‘code red for humanity’.

Reference: (1)

This article first appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Town & Country Planning.