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Controlling deforestation and wildlife trafficking could prevent pandemics

By Michael Marshall

Palm oil plantations in Indonesia

Putu Artana / Alamy

Future pandemics could be prevented if unsustainable practices like deforestation and wildlife trade on an industrial scale are halted, according to a global report on biodiversity. The costs for this would be repaid many times over, simply because our society would not have to go through another pandemic.

Millions of people live or work in close contact with disease-transmitting wildlife and these industries are not properly regulated. For example, the more people cut down forests for arable land, the more they force their way into the animal habitats and thus come into regular contact with disease-transmitting wild animals.

Controlling the global wildlife trade and reducing land use changes would cost $ 40 to 58 billion a year, the report said. That's a lot, but the Covid-19 pandemic has cost the global economy an estimated $ 8-16 trillion by July. In total, pandemics cost US $ 1 trillion per year – including treatment costs and economic and productivity losses – including the ongoing HIV and influenza pandemics.

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"It's a really incredibly efficient return on investment that we'll see if we can get this right," says report author Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York.

The report was published by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Almost every known pandemic came from an animal, Daszak says. Covid-19 came from bats in China. "HIV originated from chimpanzee hunting," he says, and the recent African Ebola outbreak can be traced back to hunting wild primates.

Many of the most harmful practices are fueled by consumption practices in the West. “Roads are being built in the rainforests of Indonesia to deliver palm oil,” says Daszak. Palm oil is used in many foods, including prepackaged bread, ice cream, and peanut butter.

Another problem is wildlife, which is sold for pets and feed and is only tested for a handful of diseases. "The US is one of the largest importers of wildlife," he says.

Studies of antibodies in people in China suggest that every year bats infect more than a million people with coronaviruses linked to the current pandemic, Daszak says. The vast majority of these exposures do not cause major outbreaks, but they do carry all risks.

"There is this huge population that is exposed on a gigantic scale across the region," he says. "They are people who live near bat caves, who seek shelter in bat caves to escape the rain, who hunt and eat bats, use bat droppings as medicine, and spread bat droppings on crops to fertilize them."

Live wildlife markets, like the one involved in the early spread of Covid-19, are also a factor if they're not doing well. Often several species are housed together in a confined space and the stallholders live with their families on site. "There are many ways to do this more safely," says Daszak.

The report will feed into the next major session of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will take place in China in 2021 after being postponed due to the pandemic, says Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES. The meeting will set global goals for biodiversity for the next decade.

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