Protecting Nature, Preventing Pandemics

Protecting Nature, Preventing Pandemics

Prevention, the saying goes, is the best medicine. For future pandemics like COVID-19, that prevention includes protecting nature to reduce the chance of pathogens jumping from animals to humans.

Experts say the yearly cost of future pandemics will be a staggering US $2 trillion. For just 1% of that cost, the world could prevent pandemics at their source by protecting nature, according to a new study published today. Conducted by epidemiologists, economists, ecologists, and conservation biologists, the study draws parallels between pandemics and the climate crisis. While there’s no single magic fix to prevent either from causing future harm, there are a myriad of solutions.

If the US spent about the cost of vaccines in 2021 ($17 billion) on nature-based pandemic prevention measures, future pandemics could be stopped before they even spread to people. These measures include: stopping deforestation, especially in tropical regions; better management of the wildlife trade; and a worldwide viral discovery network to better monitor when pathogens leap to people.

Conservation International: Biodiversity and Pandemics, September 23, 2021.

Why This Matters

Pandemics -- like the one we’re living through -- both upend and end lives. We know that around three-quarters of emerging diseases come from animals. But right now, all prevailing plans for the next pandemic are focused on what to do after people get sick.

The study's authors "sharply disagree" with this "don't fix it 'til it's broke" logic. Rather, they argue that focusing on nature conservation is a solution that also speaks to solving multiple public health concerns. Deforestation is driving pandemics by destroying habitats, causing biodiversity loss and bringing people and animals into closer contact. So protecting forests not only prevents viruses from jumping to humans -- it helps to maintain biodiversity, preserve natural carbon sinks, and conserve water.

Harvard Chan C-CHANGE: How To Prevent Future Pandemics, August 17, 2021.

Al Jazeera: Wild Recovery - Protecting nature and preventing the next pandemic, April 21, 2021.

Spotlight On The Amazon

The paper points to the Amazon basin, one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, as an important area to protect. The basin is one of the most deforested regions worldwide over the past 20 years, and last year, deforestation hit 15-year highs. There are close links between the number of trees cut down and the global supply chain, including cattle for McDonald's that grazes on crops grown in cleared areas.

Areas that have been cleared usually bring more people into the area, working agricultural jobs or building roads. Areas with deforestation are often Indigenous-led protected areas. While designating land as Indigenous property could be a solution, current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has created policies in the opposite direction, whittling down protections and making it easier for economic activity to proceed in the Amazon.

Bloomberg Quicktake: The Brazilian Amazon's Tipping Point May Already Be Here, September 28, 2021.

CBS News: Complicit - The Amazon Fires, February 27, 2021.