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IPBES report details path to exit current ‘pandemic era’

  • A new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) calls for a “transformative change” in addressing the causes of virus outbreaks to prevent future pandemics and their devastating consequences.
  • Human-driven climate change, the wildlife trade, and conversion of natural ecosystems all increase the potential for the spillover of viruses that infect animals to people.
  • The current COVID-19 pandemic is likely to cost the global economy trillions of dollars, yet preventive measures that include identification of the hundreds of thousands of unknown viruses that are thought to exist would cost only a fraction of that total.

Avoiding the loss of human life and the economic fallout caused by future pandemics will require a seismic change in our approach to the causes of the emergence of disease-causing viruses, according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES.

Peter Daszak, who chaired the July 2020 workshop that produced the report, noted that we’ve identified only about 2,000 of the 1.7 million viruses that exist in birds and mammals. Scientists estimate that between 540,000 and 850,000 of these could infect humans.

“It’s quite interesting that we don’t know this diversity,” Daszak, also the president of the environmental health nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, said in a press call on Oct. 29. “We keep seeing these new viruses emerging and causing diseases in people. So why aren’t we going out there and treating this as a form of diversity that we really need to understand?”

The report’s authors recommend identifying species at high risk of carrying diseases that can be passed to humans, or zoonoses, as a proactive way to deal with pandemics. Image courtesy of IPBES.

The findings of around 700 scientific studies referenced in the Oct. 29 report demonstrate that we understand the impacts that humans have that lead to potential pandemics. Climate change, the expansion of agricultural land and the wildlife trade can all expose humans to new viruses that neither our immune systems nor our health care systems are equipped to handle. Rather than solely reacting to future outbreaks with containment, new treatments, and the development of vaccines, the authors of the report write that a proactive approach is necessary.

Daszak called for a “transformative shift … dealing with the underlying drivers.”

The current report’s message dovetails with the findings that IPBES, an independent intergovernmental group, released in 2019, suggesting that 1 million species globally face the threat of extinction. Reflecting on how humans impact the environment is critical, not just to save these species, but to save ourselves, said Enric Sala, an ecologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, in a statement from the Wyss Campaign for Nature.

“The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of the intertwining complexity of Life on Earth,” said Sala, who recently published a book on the importance of nature. “Everything we need to survive — the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat, the clean water we drink — it’s produced by the work of other species. But with the breakdown of nature, we face a mass extinction of these species.”

The report cites land use change as a major factor in the emergence of viruses that could touch off a pandemic. Image courtesy of IPBES.

Around the globe, viruses are cropping up in new places as a result of climate change. The loss of habitat as forests and other ecosystems are destroyed to make way for crops and livestock brings us and our domesticated animals in closer contact with potentially virus-harboring wild animals. And the legal and illegal wildlife trade brings people into contact with animals that could serve as conduits for the passage of viruses from the wild into human society. The report’s authors note that most pandemics, including the current COVID-19 pandemic, come from animals. These “zoonoses” also make up around 70% of emerging diseases, such as Ebola, Zika and Nipah.

As COVID-19 is once again surging in many countries, it’s already known to have infected 44 million people and killed 1.1 million globally. But it’s not just human life that’s at stake, Daszak said. The COVID-19 pandemic could cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion by mid-2021, and that’s assuming that researchers find an effective vaccine by that time. It has already siphoned trillions from the global economy, and economists estimate that pandemics in the future could exact a toll of $1 trillion a year.

By comparison, preventing the outbreaks in the first place works out to between $40 billion and $58 billion.

“You put a dollar into prevention, you get $100 return in the future,” Daszak said. “Why aren’t we doing this on a global scale?”

“An ounce of prevention is worth 100 pounds of cure,” he added.

IPBES scientists suggest policy approaches, such as considering how the destruction of ecosystems will increase pandemic risk. Image courtesy of IPBES.

The report lays out a number of strategies for addressing our relationship with viruses, from including assessments of the pandemic risks that a land use change project might entail, to identifying traded species with high risks of carrying zoonotic diseases, to leveraging knowledge acquired by Indigenous peoples to keep emerging diseases at bay.

Daszak said the current IPBES report wasn’t all “doom and gloom,” but rather “an optimistic call for action.”

“We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics — but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” he said in an IPBES statement. “We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

Banner image of a denuded landscape, by Sebastian Pichler.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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