PandemicValuing “Natural Capital” Vital to Avoid Next Pandemic

Published 2 December 2020

Pandemics will emerge more often, kill more people than COVID-19 and do even more damage to the world economy unless urgent steps are taken to address risk drivers such as deforestation, warns a major new report on biodiversity and pandemics.

Pandemics will emerge more often, kill more people than COVID-19 and do even more damage to the world economy unless urgent steps are taken to address risk drivers such as deforestation, warns a major new report on biodiversity and pandemics. 

The report, entitled “Escaping the Era of Pandemics,” was made public by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which includes United Nations members from more than 100 governments. The report is the result of an urgent workshop organized by the IPBES. The workshop brought together 22 experts to evaluate scientific evidence and make recommendations to control and prevent future pandemics, detailed in the report, which IPBES members will now consider whether to endorse. 

“The two biggest driving forces for pandemics are forest degradation and industrial animal production,” says Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health, who served as a scientific peer reviewer for the report. “Greater management and surveillance of wet markets, where live animals are sold, is also important.” 

Every major economic decision, Gillespie warns, needs to take into account what he calls “natural capital” in order to avoid even bigger catastrophes than the current pandemic. 

The economic costs of a major pandemic are 100 times the estimated costs of prevention, the report notes. It recommends government policy changes to reduce globalized agricultural expansion and the types of trade that have led to pandemics. Some of the possible measures it cites are taxing meat consumption and livestock production and reforming financial aid for land use to consider risks to biodiversity and health. 

Like all pandemics, the emergence of the novel coronavirus was driven entirely by human activities, the report states. The authors estimate that another 1.7 million currently “undiscovered” viruses exist in mammals and birds — and nearly half of them may have the potential to infect people. 

National governments need to incorporate a “One Health” approach — considering the deep connections between the health of people, domesticated animals, wildlife and ecosystems — to build pandemic control and prevention efforts, the report adds. 

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