Half a million undiscovered animal viruses could cause next pandemic, report warns

Jordan Kelly-Linden
·4 min read
A Covid-19 patient's hand connected to a pulse oximeter in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Ambroise Pare Clinic in Paris, France - Nathan Laine / Bloomberg
A Covid-19 patient's hand connected to a pulse oximeter in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Ambroise Pare Clinic in Paris, France - Nathan Laine / Bloomberg

Preventing future pandemics could be more than 100 times cheaper than tackling deadly outbreaks after they emerge, new report finds.

Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities.

Estimates suggest there are another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds – of which between 540,000 to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.

Yet current strategies to tackle disease outbreaks are responsive and without a coordinated global plan more will die from future pandemics more dangerous than Covid-19, the report warns.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr Peter Daszak, lead author of the report and president of EcoHealth Alliance.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.”

The latest findings were published by a UN-organisation known as IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which is tasked with protecting the natural world on behalf of people.

IPBES estimates that the current pandemic could cost the world economy $16 trillion (£12.2 trillion) by July 2021. Its report calls for the end to the global “business as usual” approach to outbreaks, which sees countries scramble to contain diseases after they have already emerged instead of investing in surveillance tools.

"The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak.

“We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

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The majority of emerging diseases, such as Ebola, Zika and tick-borne encephalitis, and almost all known pandemics are a result of microbial 'spillover’ events due to contact among wildlife, livestock, and people, the report states.

Agricultural expansion and intensification, the wildlife trade, wildlife consumption and global travel are all drivers of these events which have the potential to cause widespread human suffering.

“Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people,” explained Dr Daszak. “This is the path to pandemics.”

According to the report the risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to spread and become pandemic.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way, he says. Future pandemics can be greatly reduced by a combination of better government coordination, health clinics and jobs for people living on the fringes of wild areas and changes in eating habits.

One idea floated in the report was the concept of a 'meat tax' or levies on other 'high risk' practices.

Promoting a transition to healthier and more sustainable diets, including more responsible meat consumption, would help protect the environment, cut down on illegal wildlife trade and limit human interaction with potential disease hotspots. 

Outbreaks of influenza viruses and new pandemic strains have emerged largely because of "incredibly dense production of poultry and pigs in some parts of the world, driven by our global consumption patterns," Dr Daszak said.

The growing, globalised livestock industry is "very profitable" - and previous studies have suggested taxing meat production and consumption to nudge the industry towards ways of operating that do less harm to the planet and people, he said.

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'Disease X' | The mystery killer keeping scientists awake at night

The study also recommended that the knowledge held by indigenous peoples and local communities should be included in pandemic prevention efforts.

Giving forest peoples ownership of the land where they live would also help curb the threat of pandemics, experts said.

Now is the time to act, agreed Mark Wright Director of Science at WWF.

“We need to radically shift our approach, with urgent and ambitious action to stop human activity from driving biodiversity loss," he said in response to the IPBES report.

"National governments should adopt the ‘One Health’ approach suggested in the report, which recognises the inseparable link between human health and the health of nature. Only then can we protect the future of both of people and planet.”

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