A new study published in Science Advances argues that steps must be taken now to avoid future pandemics as people continue to interact with wildlife that carry many different pathogens. Researchers defined three primary prevention methods to prevent the spillover of diseases from animals to humans, some of which benefit the planet as well. These methods include better pathogen surveillance, wildlife and hunting management and forest protection.
Zoonotic diseases are pathogens that originate in animals before being spread to humans. Detection and containment of these pathogens before their spillover into humans would save lives and money.
Dr. Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained during a press conference some of the positive side effects of primary prevention.
“The returns on investments of primary prevention affect all pathogens … but it also has returns to the environment, local culture in indigenous communities and economic development,” she said. “It’s way more than just preventing new pandemics, it’s a broad range of factors that could benefit from that.”
In addition, the study calculated primary prevention costs and compared to the economic value of lives lost from zoonotic diseases annually. Dr. Aaron Bernstein, lead author of the study and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, expanded on this during the press conference.
“Those preventive actions will cost somewhere on the order of $20 billion, which is to say that prevention is about one-twentieth the cost of the losses we deal with every year,” said Bernstein.
According to the study, “Deforestation is arguably the leading driver of pathogen emergence and inarguably the greatest threat to terrestrial biodiversity.”
Deforestation creates increased contact between humans and animals while also contributing to climate change. Dr. Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, explained the benefits of stopping it.
“The list of things that we’ve suggested are all things that we know how to do and have all sorts of other benefits,” said Pimm. “We ought to be protecting forests for other reasons, 10% of all carbon emissions comes from our burning them.”
Castro said primary prevention is crucial to avoiding future pandemics, particularly in protecting forests.
“One point that I want to make is that this new paradigm of primary pandemic prevention is absolutely critical at a time when deforestation … continues to rise in the Amazon Forest while government oversight has been relaxed,” she said.
According to the BBC, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest hit its highest level in over 15 years in 2021, increasing by 22% compared to the previous year.
“This is not a problem that’s going to go away; it’s a problem that is going to get worse,” said Pimm. “We’re going to be at greater risk and the data suggests that we’re going to get events like this more frequently.”
“If we were living on a planet with a stable climate and an intact biosphere, we might be able to afford waiting until disaster happens and trying to contain it, but the reality is we don’t, and to operate on that premise is one of the greatest pieces of folly of modern times,” Bernstein said.