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How to escape from ‘1.7 million ‘undiscovered’ viruses’? Experts warn of worse crises

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Researchers warn that “future pandemics will emerge more frequently, spread more quickly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than covid-19”

Coronavirus is at least the sixth global health pandemic of the last century since the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and, although everything seems to indicate that its origin is linked to animal-bound microbes, its emergence has been driven entirely by human activities. It is estimated that in mammals and birds alone there are another 1.7 million viruses that have not yet been discovered and that up to 850,000 could have the capacity to infect people. Now, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent intergovernmental body made up of more than 130 governments, warns that “future pandemics will emerge more frequently, spread faster, do more damage to the world economy, and kill more people than covid-19.” Therefore, following an urgent virtual workshop involving 22 leading experts from around the world, they are urging for a radical change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the coronavirus pandemic or any other modern pandemic,” says Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance and in charge of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also create the risk of epidemics through their impacts on our environment,” he says and continues: “Changes in the way we use land, the expansion and intensification of agriculture, and unsustainable trade, production and consumption alter nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the way to pandemics.”

According to the report developed after the meeting, the risk can decrease significantly by reducing human activities that drive biodiversity loss, through greater conservation of protected areas and by measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation. This would reduce contact between animals and humans and help prevent the spread of new diseases.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence, however, points to a very positive conclusion,” Says Daszak, explaining that there is a growing “greater capacity” in pandemic prevention, but notes that “the way the current one is being addressed largely ignores that capacity.” “We are still confident that we can contain and control diseases after they arise, through vaccines or treatments.”

The document says that relying on responses to diseases after their onset, such as public health measures, technological solutions, and the rapid design and distribution of new vaccines and therapies, is a “slow and uncertain path.” It also causes widespread human suffering and economic damage that affects the global world. Thus, experts estimate that the cost of reducing risk and contributing to prevention can be 100 times less than the cost of responding to a pandemic already initiated.

These researchers have developed a series of measures that would help reduce the imminent risk of more crises:

  • Creation of a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide the best scientific evidence to governments when making decisions about emerging diseases, as well as predicting high-risk areas, assessing the economic impact of potential pandemics, and highlighting gaps in research.
  • The countries must establish common objectives within an international agreement, with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
  • Institutionalize the ‘One Health‘ approach in national governments to create a program for the prevention, investigation and control of outbreaks in all sectors.
  • Develop and incorporate health impact assessments of emerging and pandemic diseases into major development projects and land use, while financial support for agriculture should be reformed so that benefits and risks to agriculture biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly addressed.
  • Ensure that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enable changes to reduce consumption rates, globalized agricultural expansion, and trade that have led to pandemics. This could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production, and other forms of high-risk pandemic activities.
  • Reduce the risks of zoological diseases in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental “health and trade” partnership; in addition to reducing or eliminating species at high risk of diseases in said trade and preventing the illegal trafficking of species.
  • Value the participation and knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities in pandemic prevention programs.
  • Close knowledge gaps such as risk behavior, the relative importance of illegal and unregulated wildlife trade, and improve understanding of the relationship between ecosystem degradation and restoration.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and experience in informing policies and decision-making,” says Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. However, the fact that human activity has been able to change the natural environment so fundamentally does not always have to have a negative result. “It also provides compelling evidence of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics, while benefiting conservation and reducing climate change,” Daszak concludes.

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