Lessons learned: policy must focus on pandemic prevention, not just preparedness

By on 18/05/2021
Wildlife trade, for example in pangolins, is one area of concern for causing zoonotic disease outbreaks. Credit: Frendi Apen Irawan/Wikimedia

As the world looks to a future after COVID-19, experts are urging governments to concentrate on preventing viruses from spilling over into humans. But this takes cross-departmental co-ordination, bringing together the needs of people, animals and our planet. Catherine Early reports on the policy challenges and the ‘one health’ approach

The word “unprecedented” has been used widely in the past year, as waves of the health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19 surged around the globe. But while it may have been unprecedented, the pandemic was not unexpected – coming as little surprise to scientists who had been studying the rise of zoonotic disease outbreaks in recent years.

Some 75% of the more than 30 new human pathogens detected over the past 30 years – including HIV, SARS and MERS – originated in animals. Furthermore, there are an estimated 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in wildlife, scientists warn, many of which could begin to affect humans.

Multiple studies show that as humans encroach ever further into previously untouched areas of wilderness – through deforestation and taking wild animals for food or trade – they increase the chances of encountering new pathogens. This, in turn, increases the risk that these diseases develop the ability to infect humans.

Wildlife trading

The wildlife trade is a key risk for spillovers, because it takes animals that often do not exist in close proximity in the wild and puts them together in cramped, stressful conditions, with increased human contact. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – confirmed links with the seafood market in Wuhan, China. It also recommended expanding the investigation to other markets and farms, including those producing fur.

Ending wildlife trade for non-essential products would be one of the best ways governments could cut spillover risk immediately, according to Tanya Sanerib, international legal director and senior attorney at the US-based non-profit Center for Biological Diversity. China and Vietnam have both banned the trade of wildlife for consumption due to the COVID-19 crisis, she notes.

In April this year, the WHO, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) called on governments to suspend the trade in live-caught wild animals for food and breeding, and to close markets that sell live wild animals.

But tackling local foodstuff markets alone is not enough: much of the demand for wildlife comes from the developed world – for pets, fur and trinkets. The US, for example, imported almost 23 million animals, parts, samples and products made from bats, primates and rodents over a recent five-year period, according to analysis of government data by the Center for Biological Diversity.

“These are not items that are essential for life, they are luxury items, so we can easily change those consumption patterns. This will make a huge difference in terms of how many people are coming into contact with wildlife in biodiversity-rich areas to meet demand for these items,” says Sanerib.

It is important, however, that governments consider the livelihoods of those people who work in the wildlife trade, Sanerib says. A model already used by many countries to prevent poaching could be applied: just as former poachers are employed as rangers to protect animals, wildlife trade workers could be redeployed to monitor stocks or restore habitats, she suggests.

An anti-poaching unit on patrol: experts say that in tackling wildlife trade governments must consider livelihoods, and methods used to redeploy workers to support conservation efforts could be replicated. Credit: Bumi Hills Foundation/Wikimedia

Such an approach would be money well spent, experts say. “The cost of closing wildlife trade, the fur farms, and compensating people who work in this trade legally is nothing compared with the cost of this pandemic, or the next,” says Dr Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at conservation group the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This work needs to be done domestically, she adds, but also multilaterally, to stop the trade shifting across borders.

Tackling deforestation

Deforestation is another area of risk for pathogen spillover. Tropical countries with high biodiversity are hotspots for zoonotic outbreaks. But destruction of the natural world in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia is often driven by consumption in richer countries: forests are cleared for palm oil plantations or to grow soy to export as livestock feed, for example.

Many governments already have legislation and policies in place to prevent deforestation, restore wildlife habitats, and increase protected areas, but these are often poorly enforced and underfunded. A recent study by Nature Conservancy and think tank the Paulson Institute estimated the gap in funding to adequately protect the world’s biodiversity will be between US$598 billion and US$824 billion per year over the next decade.

And rates of deforestation are rising. Primary forest loss was 12% higher in 2020 than the year before, according to data published last month by US-based think tank the World Resources Institute. This was the second year in a row that loss of this ecosystem accelerated in tropical areas. Deforestation driven by commodity production was the leading cause for this rise in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

A clash of forestry and farming: deforestation in places such as Brazil is another area of risk for pathogen spillover. Credit: Kate Evans/CIFOR/Flickr

In a report published last year, the UNEP and the International Livestock Research Institute outlined suggestions of policies to reduce the impact of agriculture on wildlife habitats, cutting pandemic spillover risk. Examples include investing in agro-ecological methods of food production that mitigate waste and pollution, while reducing zoonotic disease transmission. Existing commitments on this issue should also be strengthened, it said.

A reduction in deforestation will also help protect against climate change, points out Lieberman. “If you look at policies holistically, you get two for one,” she says.

Policy challenges

One challenge is that governments tend to focus on improving their responses to disease outbreaks, rather than reducing the risk of their occurring in the first place.

In March this year, 25 heads of government – including the UK, Germany, France, South Africa, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Senegal – and the WHO published a joint call for a new international treaty “for pandemic preparedness and response”. The treaty’s goal should be to strengthen national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics, working through the WHO and using international health regulations, it said.

The treaty is “the right thing to do”, says Lieberman, who is working with several governments on the project. But it needs to include preventing pandemics at source, she stresses. A recent report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, established by WHO, was also criticised by some groups for failing to include the source of pandemics and virus spill-over.

Epidemiologist Dr Neil Vora agrees that measures to avert and to contain disease outbreaks need to be tackled with the same urgency. “It’s like driving a car,” he says. “You don’t choose between wearing a seatbelt and having a car with an airbag; for maximum safety, you’d have both of them.”

Part of the problem is a lack of cross-departmental thinking by governments on this issue, says Lieberman. When developed countries spend their overseas aid, she suggests, they could support countries to close wildlife markets rather than funding new roads that will open up areas for deforestation.

“It’s easier said than done: departments have their own missions,” says Lieberman, who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service earlier in her career. But heads of state can pull issues across ministries, she says, pointing to US president Joe Biden’s “all of government” approach to climate change as a good model.

Policy approaches

Responsibility for the impact of wildlife on human health tends to fall between different government departments, and there is no international body with the issue wholly within its remit, says Lieberman. For this reason, governments should look at having a “one-health” approach to bring ministries together, she says.

One health is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors – including human, animal and planetary health – are considered together to achieve better public health outcomes.

The Federal Foreign Office of the German government has been working on “one health” for several years. It has promoted the approach to other governments by launching the Berlin Principles, which include devising international funding mechanisms for ecosystem protection that match the serious threat of emerging disease.

Up to now, the one health approach has mostly focused on preventing known diseases caused by interactions between human and livestock, such as bird flu and swine flu. As such, it has primarily involved coordination between the WHO, OIE and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

The German and French governments are working with these three organisations to establish an international One Health High-Level Expert Panel to advise governments. The creation of the council, which launches on Thursday, will also see UNEP being brought into one health work to increase the focus on the environment. Its membership is expected to be finalised by May.

“There’s still a lot of work to do to keep up the momentum. However, the overall awareness caused by the ongoing pandemic has a positive effect on our efforts to push for international cooperation on one health,” a spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office in Germany said. The German government will also push for pandemic prevention to be taken forward at the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings, according to the spokesperson.

Though the task to create policies within and across governments to prevent disease outbreak seems huge, experts agree that prevention is better than cure. Research published in the journal Science quantified the need for a total of US$22-US$31 billion to curb habitat loss, deforestation and wildlife trade, and monitor and control disease emergence to dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic. This was just 2% of the US$10-20 trillion costs inflicted on the global economy by the pandemic in the period to July 2020 alone, they pointed out.

“A virus can jump from wildlife to a person in the middle of the Congo basin, and can be in Europe within 24 hours,” says Lieberman. “So we can talk about preparedness and surveillance and making markets more sanitary, but I can guarantee there’ll be another pandemic within the next 10 years if that’s all we do.”

On 19 October 2021, GGF will be hosting an online webinar on how to prevent pandemics. What new structures, processes and policies are required to promote progress? Where should responsibilities sit at the national level? And where is international action required? It is free for all public officials, and you can sign up here.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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