Warning of More Pandemics to Come, Public Health Experts Urge Collective Examination of What it Means to  Live in 'Harmony with Nature'

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on June 30, 2020. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/AFP via Getty Images)

Warning of More Pandemics to Come, Public Health Experts Urge Collective Examination of What it Means to Live in 'Harmony with Nature'

To mitigate risk, governments and communities must work together to rebuild "the infrastructures of human existence."

As the world continues to adjust to life amidst Covid-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease expert in the United States, recently pointed to human activity and a disregard of living in harmony nature with as a major accelerator of pandemics--part of a global chorus elevating such concerns.

"Covid-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century," Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) wrote with medical epidemiologist David Morens, in a paper published last month in the scientific journal Cell. "It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature's inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises."

Public health experts and naturalists called attention to the report, which notes that while disease development and spread is nothing new, "we now live in a human-dominated world in which our increasingly extreme alterations of the environment induce increasingly extreme backlashes from nature."

Scientist and researcher Jane Goodall, who has called the Covid-19 pandemic a "wake-up call" for humanity, agrees with Fauci and Morens' sentiment. In an essay for Vogue this week, Goodall wrote that a more environmentally-friendly global economy could help mitigate future outbreaks.

"Covid-19 is a direct result of our disrespect for the environment and animals," she said. "Zoonotic diseases have been getting more frequent, and it's not just a result of the wild animal markets in Asia and bushmeat markets in Africa, but the factory farms in Europe and America too."

Fauci and Morens note that scientific and technological advances remain important, but that they alone will not safeguard humanity from future pandemic-level diseases. They wrote:

Science will surely bring us many life-saving drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics; however, there is no reason to think that these alone can overcome the threat of ever more frequent and deadly emergences of infectious diseases. Evidence suggests that SARS, MERS, and Covid-19 are only the latest examples of a deadly barrage of coming coronavirus and other emergences.

The Covid-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world, in which our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences. We remain at risk for the foreseeable future.

Nature historian and broadcaster David Attenborough, in a BBC documentary set to air September 13, also issued a warning that protecting the planet and wildlife is essential to preserving the human race.

"This is about more than losing wonders of nature," Attenborough says "Extinction: The Facts," the new documentary. "The consequences of these losses for us as a species are far-reaching and profound."

Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services, who is also featured in the BBC piece, toldSunday People, "We need to recognize that the way we're interacting with nature is increasing the probability of those sorts of pandemics in the future. Wet markets for example, where we've got animals and humans together, and animals that don't normally interact with each other."

Watson continued, "We have to realize how we're exposing ourselves to this and the more we destroy nature, the more we are exposed."

Fauci and Morens noted substantial changes to our way of life are necessary in order to prevent future global pandemics:

Living in greater harmony with nature will require changes in human behavior as well as other radical changes that may take decades to achieve: rebuilding the infrastructures of human existence, from cities to homes to workplaces, to water and sewer systems, to recreational and gatherings venues.

In such a transformation we will need to prioritize changes in those human behaviors that constitute risks for the emergence of infectious diseases. Chief among them are reducing crowding at home, work, and in public places as well as minimizing environmental perturbations such as deforestation, intense urbanization, and intensive animal farming. Equally important are ending global poverty, improving sanitation and hygiene, and reducing unsafe exposure to animals, so that humans and potential human pathogens have limited opportunities for contact.

It is a useful 'thought experiment' to note that until recent decades and centuries, many deadly pandemic diseases either did not exist or were not significant problems. Cholera, for example, was not known in the West until the late 1700s and became pandemic only because of human crowding and international travel, which allowed new access of the bacteria in regional Asian ecosystems to the unsanitary water and sewer systems that characterized cities throughout the Western world. This realization leads us to suspect that some, and probably very many, of the living improvements achieved over recent centuries come at a high cost that we pay in deadly disease emergences.

In an opinion for STAT, co-authored with Joel G. Breman, senior scientific adviser of the Fogarty International Center of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Morens wrote Wednesday: "Strengthening basic public health measures, including hygiene and sanitation in all countries, can also make us more secure. Emerging viruses should not find ready pathways to facilitate their spread. A stronger global public health infrastructure is also needed to respond quickly and efficiently to emerging viruses and other pathogens."

Morens and Breman continued, "It may seem strange to compare threats posed by human interactions with winged mammals that sleep upside down in caves to that of a terrorist group or a nuclear-armed nation. But scientific evidence--and our collective daily experience coping with Covid-19--tells us that pandemics may equal or surpass these dangers. It is time to significantly elevate our response to them so it is equal to the peril they present."

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