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We can prevent future pandemics by protecting nature

A collaborative effort involving 25 scientists from around the globe has put forth a comprehensive plan aimed at preventing future pandemics through the conservation of natural habitats and the enhancement of biodiversity. 

This initiative seeks to ensure animals have access to sufficient food, safe environments, and enough space to reduce interactions and the subsequent transmission of pathogens to humans.

Encounters between humans and disease-carrying animals

Pandemics often originate from close encounters between humans and disease-carrying animals like bats, which can transmit new pathogens directly or indirectly to people. 

The viruses responsible for outbreaks such as SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1, Nipah, Hendra, and possibly Ebola, have all been traced back to bats, highlighting the danger of spillover events.

Shifting the focus to preventing future pandemics

“The world is focused on how can we detect and then contain a novel pathogen once it is circulating in humans, rather than how can we prevent that pathogen from entering the human population in the first place,” said lead author Raina Plowright, a professor of public and ecosystem health at Cornell University.

Drawing on findings from two studies conducted in 2022, which investigated the transmission of the Hendra virus from bats to horses and humans, the team’s prevention strategy emphasizes the importance of maintaining natural habitats for wildlife. 

Stressed bats linked to higher pathogen exposure risk

The studies revealed that habitat loss and diminished winter food sources lead to bats migrating into agricultural and urban areas, where stressed conditions cause them to excrete more of the virus. 

This chain of events facilitates the transfer of viruses from bats to horses, and from horses to humans. Conversely, when bats have access to sufficient natural food sources, their migration patterns normalize, significantly reducing virus shedding.

Disrupting the pathogen transmission pathways

The proposed roadmap outlines a series of ecological interventions and policy recommendations aimed at disrupting the pathways through which pathogens are transmitted from animals to humans. 

Key measures include ensuring consistent food availability for wildlife throughout the year, especially during critical periods such as reproduction and migration; protecting natural habitats where animals roost or gather in large numbers; and establishing buffer zones between human populations and wildlife to minimize contact.

Minimizing the risk of pathogen exposure 

The experts emphasize the rarity of disease transmission under natural conditions, discussing the multitude of barriers that typically prevent pathogens from reaching humans. However, they stress the importance of protective measures for communities that interact closely with wildlife, to minimize the risk of pathogen exposure.

Highlighting the need for a dedicated international body to oversee pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response, the scientists advocate for the creation of an agency or panel capable of evaluating data on ecological integrity, landscape intactness, and biodiversity as key factors in preventing future pandemics. 

This approach marks a significant shift towards proactive measures designed to safeguard public health by preserving the natural environment.

Predicting future pandemics 

Predicting the next pandemic’s specifics, such as its pathogen, origin, or timing, is difficult. However, understanding the facts and trends can help in developing strategies to mitigate the impact of future pandemics.

Zoonotic diseases are a major threat

A significant proportion of new infectious diseases that affect humans originate in animals (zoonotic diseases). Changes in human activity, such as deforestation, wildlife trade, and intensified agriculture, increase the risk of zoonotic diseases spilling over to humans.

Globalization and mobility increase spread

The high level of global interconnectedness through travel and trade means that infectious diseases can spread more rapidly and widely than in the past. A disease that emerges in one part of the world can reach distant countries within hours or days.

Antimicrobial resistance

The rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a significant concern. It could lead to a situation where common infections become untreatable, compounding the challenges of controlling a pandemic.

Climate change

Climate change is altering patterns of disease transmission. It can expand the habitats of vectors like mosquitoes, leading to the spread of diseases like malaria and dengue to new areas. It also impacts food security, which can contribute to conditions favorable for the emergence of diseases.

Technology will be key in preventing future pandemics

Advances in technology, such as genomic sequencing and artificial intelligence, will play a critical role in early detection and response to emerging pathogens. Improved surveillance and data sharing across borders can help identify and contain outbreaks before they become pandemics.

Preparedness and response plans

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of having robust preparedness and response plans at global, national, and local levels. This includes stockpiling essential medical supplies, having flexible healthcare systems, and establishing protocols for vaccine development and distribution.

Public health investment 

Sustained investment in public health infrastructure and systems is essential for detecting, preventing, and responding to pandemics. This includes strengthening healthcare systems, developing rapid diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments, and training healthcare workers.

Social and economic disparities

Pandemics disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, exacerbating social and economic inequalities. Addressing these disparities is critical to reducing the overall impact of future pandemics.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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