Our current pandemic likely originated in bats. One of these flying mammals somehow came into close contact with a human, or infected another animal which in turn spread the disease to people. But this isn’t the first or the last time a pathogen will creep over from an animal and into humans. The CDC estimates that 6 in every 10 new diseases originate in animals, and those of concern in the US include coronaviruses, West Nile, rabies, and Lyme. Other so-called zoonotic viruses include MERS, SARS, H1N1, and HIV.
As humans and wildlife increasingly intermingle due to wildlife trade and deforestation, these types of viruses will only have more opportunity to infect homo sapien hosts. “We know there’s another load of them out there,” says Andrew Dobson, an infectious disease ecologist at Princeton University. “Being prepared and stopping them before they cross over is the most cost-effective way of preventing this from happening again.”
Dobson and an interdisciplinary team including biologists, economists, and epidemiologists recently published a policy paper in Science demonstrating the need to prepare for all the nefarious microbes lurking in wildlife. Not only will investing in conservation and regulating wildlife trade stem the flow of pathogens, it’s on the order of 1,000 times more cost-effective than dealing with pandemics after they hit humanity.
Zoonotic diseases infect people during close contact with wildlife, with livestock sometimes serving as an intermediate vector. Deforestation increases this risk. When we increasingly carve up forests with roads and settlements, we also reduce habitat for wildlife, making humans and animals more likely to interact. Roughly half of zoonotic diseases are related to deforestation, with Ebola being just one example.
Wildlife trade for everything from food to medicine to exotic pets also encourages the emergence of new diseases. Globally, countless animals are captured and transported without health screenings and kept in unsanitary conditions as part of the multibillion dollar industry. While some consumption of wild animals is part of cultural traditions, Dobson says that a lot of it is also related to the desire for luxury dining. The sprawling exotic pet industry, of which the United States is a big player, also contributes.
With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, the team of scientists prepared an economic analysis to see how much it might cost to stop zoonoses at their source. Using their expertise and existing information on policies to address deforestation and wildlife trade, the researchers assembled a global estimate of what it might cost to stave off pandemics. For comparison, they estimated the toll, in dollars, that the current pandemic might inflict.
In total, preventing future pandemics through strategic protection of forests and regulating wildlife trade would cost between $22 and $31 billion a year. This might seem like a lot, but it’s pennies compared to the cost of fighting a global disease outbreak. Pandemic-caused economic losses for 2020 will be at least $5 trillion, the researchers report. Including a value for the lost lives, the projected impacts of COVID-19 soar up to between $8 and $15 trillion dollars. Just as a reminder, a trillion is one thousand billions. So it’s not a stretch to say that the prevention measures outlined by the authors are pocket change in comparison. “Dollars talk,” says Amy Ando, a coauthor of the study and environmental economist at the University of Illinois. “Perhaps [the findings] will help policymakers and legislators to have a better way to compare the bottom line.”
Christina Faust, an infectious disease ecologist who wasn’t part of the study, adds that a component of prevention needs to be reducing barriers to conducting research in the origin countries of outbreaks. “We need to do better to promote ongoing research in affected countries and help make conducting this important research more economical,” she said in an email. “Reducing deforestation and limiting wildlife trade would significantly reduce risks of new emerging diseases and, if stakeholders are involved throughout the process, could have cascading benefits beyond global health.”
Preventative efforts would need to take place at all levels of governance. One first step would perhaps be to increase funding for the Convention on International in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty to regulate wildlife trade. “CITES is massively underfunded,” says Dobson. “So empowering CITES or bringing in additional expertise that deals with monitoring the health and pathogens in those species that are traded is a vital way to go.”
Dobson also envisions funding for expanded “genetic libraries” of novel viruses. Researchers involved in monitoring animal health could keep samples of pathogenic DNA, allowing us to have the tools to quickly develop tests and vaccines should any of those bugs jump to humans.
To help reduce deforestation-related risks, ecologists could target areas where high-risk species—including bats, rodents, primates, and pangolins—dwell alongside humans, and policymakers could target conservation efforts in those areas. Myriad policy options exist, like direct payments to farmers and loggers to compensate for lost income, as well as forest regulation and zoning to avoid disturbing areas most likely to harbor potentially harmful microbes.
Ando adds that there are a number of side benefits to avoiding deforestation. When the researchers considered the value of carbon sequestration provided by leaving trees alone, the cost of preventing pandemics went down by $4 billion per year. Pandemic prevention can also create new jobs in conservation, research, and veterinary medicine.
It’s a problem not unlike climate change. We’ve pushed off implementing such pandemic prevention measures so far because “we tend to focus on the problems right in front of us,” says Ando. Perhaps, the researchers hope, showing the massive costs we can avert will persuade policymakers to see the long view.