9 November 2021

“Without nature conservation, we should expect more pandemics despite vaccines”, scientists say

Harvard researchers: ecosystem degradation drives new pandemics. “Covid has already required $6 trillion spending. Protecting nature would cost 50 times less”

by Matteo Cavallito


Massive investments in medical research alone will not be sufficient to curb future pandemics. In order to prevent or limit them, in fact, we will also need to protect biodiversity and preserve soil health, according to the latest study promoted by the International Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, a project of Harvard University. The main problem, says the investigation which was released in recent months, is the spillover of pathogens from animals to people. A process fueled also by the degradation of nature, as experts of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and FAO have already explained.

Bad agricultural practices favours animal-to-human transmission

Several factors must be watched carefully, including intensive livestock farming to indiscriminate hunting. Land exploitation, deforestation and the growth of urbanization are also crucial. “Agriculture is associated with greater than 50% of zoonotic infectious diseases that have emerged in humans since 1940,” the researchers explain. “With human population growing, and food insecurity on the rise because of the pandemic, investments in sustainable agriculture and in the prevention of crop and food waste are critical to reduce biodiversity losses, conserve water resources, and prevent further land use change while promoting food security and economic welfare.”

Climate change also plays a key role as it reduces the living space of animals, pushing them to relocate in search of new habitats. This process, in particular, seem to give pathogens the opportunity to find new host organisms.

Stopping pandemics would cost just 2% of anti-Covid efforts

The result is that poor soil and ecosystem management practices frustrate even the much-needed efforts of clinicians and researchers. “To manage COVID-19, we have already spent more than $6 trillion on what may turn out to be the most expensive band aids ever bought,” says Aaron Bernstein, director of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment and coordinator of the study. “No matter how much we spend on vaccines, they can never fully inoculate us from future pandemics”.

In short, although being effective in radically limiting the spread of the virus and the incidence of severe disease cases, vaccines cannot offer protection against new pathogens.

That’s why “we must take actions that prevent pandemics from starting by stopping the spillover of diseases from animals to humans,” Bernstein says. At the same time, he adds, “when we do, we can also help stabilize the planet’s climate and revitalize its biosphere, each of which is essential to our health and economic welfare”. According to the researchers, preventing the next pandemic by reducing deforestation and regulating wildlife trade would require $22 billion a year. Or about “2% of the economic and mortality costs of responding to COVID-19.”

Less deforestation, more health care

Harvard’s recommendations, which were already submitted to the G20 and are still under discussion at COP26 in Glasgow, are based on the launch of a two-way strategy. That is, investing in universal health care while committing to safeguarding ecosystems. “A successful example of this integrated model comes from Borneo,” the researchers explain. In the island, in fact, “a decade of work resulted in ∼70% reduction in deforestation and provided health care access to more than 28,400 patients“. In addition to “a substantial decreases in diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and common diseases of childhood”.

The list of recommendations includes increasing livestock biosecurity especially on farms near human settlements. But also increasing investments in health systems in developing countries and evaluating the economic impacts of prevention activities. Finally, it is essential to improve understanding of the dynamics of pandemics and the risk factors associated with them.