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Environmental degradation could push us into an era of pandemics

Environmental degradation will usher in an era of pandemics in which pandemics will occur more frequently, spread faster, kill more people, and will do even more damage to the global economy than COVID-19 unless dramatic changes are made soon. Some of the biggest risk factors include the wildlife trade and deforestation, according to a new report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The research was conducted by 22 leading experts from all over the world. After analyzing the link between environmental and increasing pandemic risks, the team agrees that it is still possible to avoid an “era of pandemics,” but it will require transformative changes in the global strategies used for prevention and response.

COVID-19 is the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Even though the virus originated in animals, the outbreak has been entirely driven by human activities, according to the IPBES report.

There are currently an estimated 1.7 million “undiscovered” viruses present in mammals and birds. Of these mysterious viruses, up to 850,000 may 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, President of EcoHealth Alliance. “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.”

The risk of pandemics can be reduced by slowing the human activities that drive biodiversity loss and greater conservation of protected areas.

The likely cost of COVID-19 is expected to reach up to $16 trillion globally by July 2020. By the end of 2021, costs could reach the same amount in the United States alone. The experts estimate that the cost of preventing pandemics is 100 times less than the cost of responding to pandemics.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion. We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” said  Dr. Daszak. 

“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 fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics – while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.”

The full report from IPBES is available here

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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