A monkey searches for food in an alleyway

A monkey searches for food in an alleyway near Kinari Bazar, in the old quarters of Delhi on July 31, 2020 in Delhi, India. The species, which has adapted to the urban environment, is often involved in clashes with humans because of habitat loss and searching for food. (Photo: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As Covid-19 Cases Rise, Global Task Force Lays Out How to Avert Future Pandemics

"We must take actions that prevent pandemics from starting by stopping the spillover of diseases from animals to humans."

With Covid-19 cases on the rise around the world, a Harvard-led task force on Wednesday released a new report detailing how strengthening healthcare systems, investing in conservation, and improving agricultural practices can help prevent more pandemics.

"Covid-19 once again reminds us of how interconnected our ecosystem is."
--Dr. Yewande Alimi, task force

"To manage Covid-19, we have already spent more than $6 trillion dollars on what may turn out to be the most expensive band-aids ever bought, and no matter how much we spend on vaccines, they can never fully inoculate us from future pandemics," Dr. Aaron Bernstein said in a statement.

Bernstein is interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which earlier this year convened the Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source with the Harvard Global Health Institute amid calls from world leaders, researchers, and conservation advocates to heal humanity's relationship with nature.

The task force's new report (pdf) focuses on actions--from reducing deforestation to regulating wildlife trade--that can prevent "spillover," referring to the transfer of pathogens from animals to people.

"We must take actions that prevent pandemics from starting by stopping the spillover of diseases from animals to humans," said Bernstein, who leads the task force. "When we do, we can also help stabilize the planet's climate and revitalize its biosphere, each of which is essential to our health and economic welfare."

The report emphasizes that "spillover of the viruses currently understood to have pandemic potential occurs from land use change, and in particular the destruction of tropical forests, expansion of agricultural lands, especially near human settlements, livestock, and farmed wildlife intensification, and wild animal hunting and trade."

The report features sections on recent pandemic infections, viruses likely to cause pandemics, where the next pandemic could begin, and drivers, interfaces, and sources of viral spillover. It also addresses prevention options, the scale of investment warranted, and the sustainability and scale of interventions, concluding with recommendations for research and action.

"We urgently need to address a growing number of intertwined crises, including the rise of emerging infectious diseases, climate change, and food and water insecurity across the globe."
--Dr. Marcos Espinal, task force

On the research front, the task force calls for establishing "the effectiveness of spillover prevention interventions, including those focused on forest conservation, wildlife hunting and trade, and biosecurity around farms."

The experts also encourage assessing the economic, ecological, and social welfare impacts of such interventions, along with their long-term viability. They further urge researchers to keep identifying emergence hotspots and continue viral discovery in wildlife.

"Covid-19 has questioned many of our assumptions and also made us snap out of our complacency," said task force member Dr. Manish Kakkar, a senior public health specialist in New Delhi, India. "There is a lot we do not know about the diseases that cross over from animals to humans and vice versa."

"More analyses are needed to explore country-specific strategies that are ongoing in nature and not knee-jerk reactions to an outbreak," Kakkar said. "I hope the task force's recommendations are deliberated upon at length to arrive at clear next steps which must be expedited if we are to be better prepared for the next pandemic. For it is not a question of 'if' there will be another one, rather 'when' there will be."

As for investments, the experts recommend establishing an intergovernmental partnership that includes the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, World Organization for Animal Health, United Nations Environment Program, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and wildlife enforcement networks.

The report also lays out six other key investment priorities:

  • Conserve tropical forests, especially in relatively intact forests as well as those that have been fragmented, to address spillover risk;
  • Improve biosecurity for livestock and farmed wild animals and remove spillover interfaces, especially when animal husbandry occurs amid or adjacent to large or rapidly expanding human populations;
  • Improve surveillance for emerging pathogens in wildlife trade;
  • Establish and fully support One Health Platforms or Coordination Committees within national governments to help coordinate spillover prevention;
  • Promote workforce development that includes training multiple disciplines on One Health approaches to pandemic prevention, including One Health research, surveillance, and spillover prevention strategies and policies; and
  • Leverage investments in healthcare system strengthening and One Health platforms in low- and middle-income countries to jointly advance conservation, animal and human health, and spillover prevention.

One Health, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, "is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach--working at the local, regional, national, and global levels--with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment."

Task force member Dr. Yewande Alimi, antimicrobial resistance and One Health Program coordinator at the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that "Covid-19 once again reminds us of how interconnected our ecosystem is."

"Where do we go from here? There is an urgent need for countries to develop and strengthen the activities of the One Health Mulitsectoral Platforms," Alimi added. "We need immediate and sustainable actions from governments such as financing and legislations for One Health collaborations to prevent spillovers."

Some pandemic prevention efforts can benefit more than just human health, the report notes. Forest conservation, for example, promotes carbon sequestration, "which is more important than ever given the findings" of last week's U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Like the IPCC assessment, the task force's report came just ahead of key meetings of global leaders. According to a statement, the pandemic prevention experts' findings "will be translated into international policy recommendations to inform" the upcoming G20 summit and United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26).

"We urgently need to address a growing number of intertwined crises, including the rise of emerging infectious diseases, climate change, and food and water insecurity across the globe," said task force member Dr. Marcos Espinal, director of Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health at the Pan American Health Organization.

"This report," he said, "outlines the research and investments we need to get to the root of these problems--protecting the natural world that we rely on for our health and economic well-being."

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