By the end of August, the global number of COVID-19 cases approached 25 million with thousands of new deaths reported every day – for a total of more than 830,000 fatalities, according to the World Health Organization. The crisis has led a team of researchers drawn from three different continents to argue for investment in the prevention of future outbreaks by targeting global deforestation and the wildlife trade linked to spillover viruses like SARS-CoV-2.
They say it’s expensive but worth the trade-off when considering the human and economic toll of such a pandemic.
“How much would it cost to prevent this happening again? And what are the principal actions that need to be put in place to achieve this?” asks Andrew Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University in the United States. Dobson, colleague Stuart Pimm of Duke University and the multidisciplinary team of epidemiologists, conservationists, economists and others, propose that a US$30 billion annual investment to better monitor the wildlife trade and reduce the impacts of deforestation would pay for itself in virus prevention.
The work, published recently in the journal Science, calls the ever-shrinking edges of tropical forest a “launch pad” for contact with bats and other wildlife that transmit new viruses that affect humans. Human activity – building roads, harvesting timber – reduces the forest cover. When more than 25 percent of the original forest cover is lost, humans and their livestock are more likely to come in contact with wildlife.
“Roadbuilding, mining and logging camps, expansion of urban centers and settlements, migration and war, and livestock and crop monocultures have led to increasing virus spillovers,” the authors wrote in a research-based commentary. “Hunting, transport, farming, and trade of wildlife for food, pets, and traditional medicine compound these routes of transmission and closely track deforestation.”
Since there’s such a strong link between deforestation and emerging viruses like Ebola, SARS and COVID-19, the scientists believe the forest edge is the first line of defense – quite apart from the other benefits of protecting forests because of their critical role in managing carbon emissions amid the broader planetary climate crisis.
“Investment in prevention may well be the best insurance policy for human health and the global economy in the future,” says Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology and global expert on biodiversity and extinction. For example, at an annual cost of $9.6 billion, direct forest-protection payments to replace economic activity that destroys forest could achieve a 40 percent reduction in areas at highest risk for virus spillover.
But wildlife trade regulation also needs better funding, with Dobson noting that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has a net global budget of “a mere $6 million” and considers zoonotic disease outside of its role. One regional wildlife enforcement network funded by the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has an annual budget of just $30,000.
Building better ways to monitor and regulate the wildlife trade could be done for around $500 million a year, according to the authors. That’s “a trivial cost,” they say, when compared with the current costs of COVID.
Ultimately, the researchers say, the cost of preventing future outbreaks is roughly estimated at 1 to 2 percent of annual military spending by the world’s 10 wealthiest countries.
“If we view the continuing battle with emerging pathogens such as COVID-19 as a war we all have to win, then the investment in prevention seems like exceptional value,” Dobson said.
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