0.85 million viruses in birds and mammals can infect people: IPBES paper

Land use change is prime trigger for COVID-19 pandemic and responsible for 30 per cent of new diseases since 1960, it adds
Exotic reptiles being sold in Myanmar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Exotic reptiles being sold in Myanmar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), in an extraordinary research paper, has warned that pandemics like novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) would hit us more frequently and also kill more than the current one.

The IPBES report has been authored by 22 experts from across the world. The report has analysed the contribution of human-induced environmental damages in the emergence of new diseases.

“Land use change is a globally significant driver of pandemics and caused the emergence of more than 30 per cent of new diseases reported since 1960,” says the report released October 29, 2020.

“Although COVID-19 has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics, its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities,” says the report.

We are yet to identify some 1.7 million viruses that exist in mammals and birds. Out of these, 50 per cent have the potential or ability to infect humans.

“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,” says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop that released the report.

However, prevention measures would be much cheaper than the pandemics’ economic costs. The current pandemic would have cost around $16 trillion globally by July 2020. The report’s authors say that the cost to reduce the risks of future pandemics would be at least 100 times less than the cost to deal with these pandemics.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” says Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics — but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated — we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity, University College London, says: “These costs are necessarily speculative of course but seem reasonable given the current disruption to our lives across the world. The international community knows how costly infectious disease outbreaks are. Else how do you explain why they put things like pandemic flu at the top of their risk registers. What we need now is global leaders to act.”

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