The illegal wildlife trade, pictured here in Myanmar, heightens the risk of spawning new viruses. Picture by Dan Bennett

An expert group convened by the USA’s Harvard University has urged governments to focus on preventing the creation of new viruses, noting that preventive work is vastly cheaper than responding to new diseases once an outbreak has occurred.

Government discussions on the issue have focussed on investments in outbreak control, such as diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. These are critical but inadequate to the scale of the risk, the scientists from the US, Latin America, Africa and South Asia said in a new report.

The group of scientists, known as the International Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, want governments to take action to curtail human activities that can lead to diseases jumping from humans to animals. The COVID-19 pandemic – originating in a virus hosted by bats – has added to the long list of such diseases, which includes AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika.

Closing Pandora’s box

There are an estimated 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in wildlife, and many of these could infect humans as people encroach ever further into untouched wild areas in search of timber, farmland, and wild animals for food or trade.

In a report launched this week, the task force said that work to strengthen healthcare systems should be integrated with environmental conservation in an approach known as One Health. The report cites an example in Borneo, in which people living near a national park in Borneo received discounts on health treatment to discourage them from illegal logging.

The task force also recommended that governments should invest in research to identify which interventions – including those focused on forest conservation, wildlife hunting and trade, and biosecurity around farms – are most effective at preventing ‘spillover’.

Recommended actions

Understanding of the most likely locations for pathogen emergence also needs to improve, it said, together with assessments of drivers such as travel and population density. Government investment should be targeted at conserving tropical forests, particularly those that are relatively intact; improving biosecurity for livestock and farmed wild animals, especially when it takes place near large human populations; and creating an intergovernmental partnership to address spillover risk from wild animals to livestock and people, involving United Nations food, agricultural and environmental specialists and the World Health Organization.

“To manage COVID-19, we have already spent more than [US]$6 trillion dollars on what may turn out to be the most expensive band aids ever bought, and no matter how much we spend on vaccines, they can never fully inoculate us from future pandemics,” said task force leader Dr Aaron Bernstein. Actions that prevent disease spillover would also help prevent climate change, he added.

The task force’s policy recommendations will be presented to the G20 summit in October and the UN Climate Change talks (COP26) in November.

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