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Scientists Warn Worse Pandemics Are on the Way if We Don’t Protect Nature

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Forest destruction caused by mining gold deposits in Venezuela. Martin Harvey / The Image Bank / Getty Images

A group of biodiversity experts warned that future pandemics are on the horizon if mankind does not stop its rapid destruction of nature.


Writing an article published Monday by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the authors put the responsibility for COVID-19 squarely on our shoulders.

"There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones," the authors wrote on IPBES.

The authors of the report include the three co-chairs of the comprehensive 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which found that one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. The fourth author, Peter Daszak, is the president of EcoHealth Alliance and is tasked with spearheading the IPBES' next global assessment, as The Guardian reported.

The authors argue that government stimulus plans need to include sustainable and nature-positive initiatives.

"It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, long-distance transportation such as the airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change, essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics," the authors wrote.

They also fault wanton greed for allowing microbes that lead to novel diseases to jump from animals to humans.

"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people," they wrote in their article.

They warn that 1.7 million unidentified viruses known to infect people are estimated to exist in mammals and water birds. Any one of these may be more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19.

With that in mind, the authors suggest three facets that should be considered for COVID-19-related stimulus plans. Countries should strengthen environmental regulations; adopt a 'One Health' approach to decision-making that recognizes complex interconnections among the health of people, animals, plants, and our shared environment; and prop up healthcare systems in the most vulnerable countries where resources are strained and underfunded. "This is not simple altruism – it is vital investment in the interests of all to prevent future global outbreaks," the scientists argue in their IPBES article.

"The programs we're talking about will cost tens of billions of dollars a year," Daszak told The Guardian. "But if you get one pandemic, even just one a century, that costs trillions, so you still come out with an incredibly good return on investment.

"Business as usual will not work. Business as usual right now for pandemics is waiting for them to emerge and hoping for a vaccine. That's not a good strategy. We need to deal with the underlying drivers."

Their assessment has been supported recently by others in the scientific community. A study published earlier this month blamed human impact on wildlife for the current outbreak, as The Guardian reported.

The authors of the new article end their piece on an optimistic note about nature's resiliency. "We can build back better and emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever – but to do so means choosing policies and actions that protect nature – so that nature can help to protect us," they wrote.

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