Future pandemics could be deadlier, warns study
The report comes three days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported the outbreak of the Mayaro virus disease in French Guiana. With symptoms similar to dengue, this virus too is transmitted through mosquitoes.Updated: Oct 30, 2020, 02:34 IST
As if the year were short on bad news, and needed more, a report by leading experts says the world could experience pandemics more frequently in future, that some of these will be deadlier than the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), and far too expensive to control unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases.
The global report on biodiversity and pandemics was authored by 22 leading experts from around the world, and released on Thursday. It is the result of a workshop convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) focused on the links between the degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks.
And for those thinking SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 is it, there are as many as 540,000 – 850,000 unknown viruses in nature that could infect people, warns the report. Interestingly, the report comes three days after the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported the outbreak of the Mayaro virus disease in French Guiana. With symptoms similar to dengue, this virus too is transmitted through mosquitoes.
The majority (70%) of emerging diseases such as Ebola, Zika, Nipah encephalitis, and almost all known pandemics such as influenza, HIV/AIDS, Covid-19, are zoonotic diseases that are caused by microbes of animal origin. These microbes spill over due to contact among wildlife, livestock, and people, the IPBES report added.
In the workshop, experts agreed that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that it requires a seismic shift in approach — from reaction to prevention.
“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,” said the report.
An estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses exist in mammals and birds, of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people, the report said.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr Peter Daszak, president, EcoHealth Alliance and chair of the IPBES workshop, in a statement.
“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. 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. This is the path to pandemics.”
Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, said the report.
The report pointed out that it is costlier to control outbreaks once they emerge because of the costs of developing drugs, vaccines and implementing public health measures that could damage the world economy. It is much more cost-effective to prevent these outbreaks, it said.
“It is a known thing that zoonotic viruses, in which viruses jump from animals to humans, are the next threat to humans because they will be new viruses that humans are not exposed to. Once these viruses adapt to human hosts they will start spreading. SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 disease is a classic example before us. You cannot predict which virus will be more invasive that spreads faster,” said Dr Shobha Broor, former head, department of microbiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.
Dr Mahesh Sankaran, professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, said, “India has many features that can potentially come together to create the ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of novel diseases in the future – high biodiversity, high population densities and extensive land transformation and fragmentation that has increased the extent of the human-wildlife interface.” He said there was a critical need to integrate biodiversity and ecosystem service values into land planning and management, while also investing in restoring and protecting natural land- and waterscapes.