It has been widely reported that COVID-19 is likely to have originated sometime in late 2019 when an individual in Wuhan, China, was infected by a virus from an animal. Scientists suspect it may have jumped from a bat by way of an intermediary animal, such as a pangolin.
Having made the leap to humans, the virus is dealing a terrible toll in terms of human lives and suffering, and has precipitated an unprecedented economic crisis. It also exploits the grossly inequitable world in which we live — for example many African countries with lower levels of healthcare resources available are facing potentially catastrophic impacts on their people and economies.
The transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals to humans has long been recognised as a serious threat by global health experts. Studies show that 75% of all emerging diseases come from wildlife, with recent years witnessing the emergence of SARS (from civet cats), MERS (from dromedary camels) and Ebola.
In order to prevent the next pandemic, then, it is crucial that we greatly reduce the opportunities for viruses to jump from animals to people.
First and foremost: the loss and degradation of natural habitats must be recognised as a key driver of emerging infectious diseases from wildlife. When an area of land is deforested and converted to agriculture, or used for infrastructure development, it reduces the natural habitat available to species and can bring them into more regular contact with each other as well as humans. This gives microbes a greater ability to move between species and to make the jump to people.
While this relationship is complex and context-dependent, the general trend is that habitat loss increases the likelihood that species carrying potential viruses are in close proximity to people.
In addition to being a key factor in land conversion, how we produce our food also has the potential to drive pandemics — raising domestic animals in high density appears to make disease spread and evolution more likely. In response to growing global demand, livestock cultivation is frequently intensive, bringing people into direct contact with thousands of the same species. The lack of genetic diversity in these operations increases the chance of rapid spread of viruses, while the sheer number of animals increases the likelihood of viruses mixing.
The wildlife trade is another activity that is bringing wildlife into close contact with people and providing microbes the opportunity to mix between species. Indeed, illegal and unregulated wildlife markets, where there are often high numbers of animals, dead and alive, sold in close proximity in unhygienic conditions, pose a clear threat to human health and well-being, and create the ideal setting for diseases to emerge. We strongly believe that illegal and unregulated markets must be closed down, for the sake of humanity and for wildlife. We are not alone.
A recent WWF-commissioned survey, conducted by Globescan, revealed that 93% of respondents in five Asian markets supported efforts by governments and health ministries to close all illegal and unregulated markets selling animals from the wild.
Alongside land use change, food and the wildlife trade, climate change is a fourth force which in the longer term is likely to be a growing driver of the emergence of zoonotic disease outbreaks. As our planet warms, the distribution and abundance of many species and disease vectors are expected to shift, creating further opportunities for viruses to jump.
Taking action to create a world which is both nature positive and carbon neutral may seem like a big ask but it is essential to securing long-term human health and prosperity, and to helping head off future global pandemics.
Healthy natural ecosystems provide multiple benefits, including essentials like water, clean air, fertile soils and a stable climate. They give us food, medicines and materials and directly underpin our economies. Our current model of production and consumption is placing these natural systems under greater and greater stress, and in turn exposing our society and economies to growing nature-related risks.
Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme, recently described the COVID-19 pandemic as “a clear warning shot” from nature. We couldn’t agree more. COVID-19 and many other zoonotic diseases such as SARS, MERS and Ebola are highly contagious and all have the potential to drive global pandemics.
In that sense, the conditions are ripe for even worse pandemics to occur in the future.
Looking ahead, it is crucial that decision makers acknowledge that rebalancing our relationship with nature is critical to securing a sustainable future for people and the planet. The United Nations plans to host a special Nature Summit in September this year, inviting world leaders to step up their efforts to reverse nature loss. Governments, businesses and organizations are continuing their preparations ahead of a set of major environmental agreements to be made in early 2021. These decisions provide a once-in-a-decade opportunity to secure a New Deal for Nature & People that reverses biodiversity loss, and ensures that nature is in recovery within a decade.
An extended network of protected areas covering 30% of the planet, restoration of natural habitats, closure of illegal wildlife markets, changing our consumption patterns to reduce the strain on nature, and setting targets to halve the impact of everything that the world produces and consumes are some of the essential ingredients of such a deal, and will help directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while protecting nature and diminishing the opportunities for pandemics to upend the world and the economy.
We do remain hopeful. Governments are currently rallying 10 percent or more of their Gross Domestic Product in the form of economic stimulus to help head off economic collapse in response to the current pandemic. Also, 11 EU countries and 180 ministers, European parliamentarians, CEOs, NGOs and trade unions recently launched an alliance for a green recovery in Europe. Both are examples of how, in a time of crisis, the world comes together with deep resolve to face down a very real threat to humanity.
The same resolve must now be applied to ensure that we come out of this pandemic in a better position to prevent the next one. This requires leaders to acknowledge the close connections between people, nature and climate, and to take action to reduce nature-related risks, starting by securing a green economic recovery.
Transformative action on nature is urgently needed. We have much more to gain from working with nature than against it.