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To avoid future pandemics, we must protect nature

A new study has confirmed a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of Earth’s ecosystems. The experts also identified a reinforcing feedback loop which suggests that pandemics could become more frequent in the future. 

The study was conducted by University of Queensland Master of Conservation Biology graduate Odette Lawler, who collaborated with a team of students in Professor Salit Kark’s Biodiversity Research Group, 

According to Lawler, the links between biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and zoonotic disease transfer had long been understood, but it has taken an international pandemic to bring the issue to public attention.

“COVID-19 has shown the world that human health and environmental health are intricately linked,” said Lawler. “We’ve long known that issues like land-use change, intensive livestock production, wildlife trade, and climate change drive the emergence of zoonotic diseases, as they increase human-wildlife interactions.”

“Now we’ve also found that these issues are being compounded by outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in feedback loops that are likely to promote future zoonotic disease outbreaks.”

“For example, research has found that rates of deforestation have substantially increased in many regions around the world over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“This is likely due to some combination of pandemic-related factors, including decreased enforcement of forest protections, relaxation of sustainability agreements and environmental deregulation, increased pressures on low-income communities, and threats to Indigenous land managers.”

“This means that COVID-19 – a pandemic sparked by a pathogen spilling from animal to human populations – has played a part in fueling further deforestation, which in turn increases risk of future zoonotic disease emergence by increasing human-wildlife interactions.”

The researchers emphasized that responses to the current pandemic must include actions to protect biodiversity and ecosystems. Professor Kark said that such responses would benefit from adopting what is known in public health and conservation circles as a One Health approach.

“One Health is a collaborative, transdisciplinary approach that aims to optimise health outcomes for communities arising from factors operating, for example, at the intersections between people, animals and their shared environment,” explained Professor Kark.

“It’s an approach that can help holistically address outbreaks before they happen, working closely with the community and engaging people in preventative ecosystem and human health.”

“Here in Australia, the emphasis should be on developing close, long-term collaboration and engagement with First Nations communities and other partners to address these risks.”

“And, internationally, Australia has so many valuable ties, which can be strengthened through working together with other nations to address the drivers of zoonotic disease emergence. In this paper, for example, the team closely collaborated with a group based in Nepal working in the area.”

“It’s vital we invest in protecting biodiversity and ecosystem health and address the drivers of zoonotic disease. If we don’t, we really are increasing the likelihood of future zoonotic disease emergence and further pandemics arising, and we now all know just how world-altering and high-impact they can be.”

The study is published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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