Deadlier outbreaks could follow coronavirus pandemic if people don't stop destroying nature, say experts

Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, infrastructure development and exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people

                            Deadlier outbreaks could follow coronavirus pandemic if people don't stop destroying nature, say experts
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more lethal and destructive disease outbreaks unless urgent action is taken to stop the rampant destruction and exploitation of nature and wildlife.

This is the stark warning issued by leading biodiversity experts in an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The scientists emphasize that recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity.

"There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity — particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones," say scientists.

"Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have a greater economic impact, and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today," they caution.

Three of the experts — professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio — were co-chairs of the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which found that 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades.

Another expert, Dr Peter Daszak, is president of EcoHealth Alliance and scoping expert for a new IPBES assessment on the links between biodiversity, health and food.

According to scientists, diseases like COVID-19 are caused by microorganisms that infect human bodies – with more than 70% of all emerging diseases affecting people having originated in wildlife and domesticated animals.

Pandemics, however, are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens, they explain. 

"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people. This often occurs in areas where communities live that are most vulnerable to infectious diseases," says the article. 

The IPBES estimates that three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. 

"Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond, except those that include transformative change, due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change, although with significant differences between regions," warn scientists.

Experts say that add to this the unregulated trade in wild animals and the explosive growth of global air travel and it "becomes clear how a virus that once circulated harmlessly among a species of bats in Southeast Asia has now infected almost 3 million people, brought untold human suffering and halted economies and societies around the world."

"This is the human hand in pandemic emergence," say researchers. As of April 30, more than 3,196,660 cases have been reported globally, and over 227,840 have died in the coronavirus pandemic, shows the Johns Hopkins tracker. 

Pandemics are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry pathogens, say experts (Getty Images)

The report further warns that this may only be the beginning. "Although animal-to-human diseases already cause an estimated 700,000 deaths each year, the potential for future pandemics is vast."

"As many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and water birds. Any one of these could be the next 'Disease X' – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19," it says.

Scientists say that the multi-trillion-dollar recovery and economic stimulus plans being implemented by governments must strengthen and enforce environmental regulations – and only deploy stimulus packages that offer incentives for more sustainable and nature-positive activities. 

"It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transportation such as the airlines and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change, essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics," say researchers. 

The scientists recommend a "one health" approach at all levels of decision-making – from the global to the most local – recognizing the complex interconnections among the health of people, animals, plants, and our shared environment.

Such an approach would ensure that better decisions are made that take into account long-term costs and consequences of development actions, for people and nature.

"Forestry departments, for example, usually set policy related to deforestation, and profits accrue largely to the private sector, but it is public health systems and local communities that often pay the price of resulting disease outbreaks," they say.

It is also critical to properly fund and resource health systems and incentivize behavior change on the frontlines of pandemic risk, say researchers. They explain that this means mobilizing international finance to build health capacity in emerging disease hotspots such as clinics and surveillance programs.

"It also entails offering viable and sustainable alternatives to high-risk economic activities and protecting the health of the most vulnerable. This is not simple altruism, it is a vital investment in the interests of all to prevent future global outbreaks," say experts.

For more information and statistics on the coronavirus pandemic, click on the Newsbreak tracker here