Coronavirus – How to Get Out of This Madness

Photo: World Animal Foundation

by Lee Hannah, Senior Scientist, Conservation International

Right now, money is flowing from Capitol Hill to provide us with much needed economic support in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As this happens, we need to make sure that money also flows towards preventing similar pandemics from happening in the future. To stop this cycle of madness, one of the next Congressional stimulus packages should create a Marshall Plan for preventing viral pandemics.

The vast majority of these pandemics have started with tropical wildlife, but they pass to people in a few different ways. Sometimes the virus jumps directly from wild animals, as was the case with Ebola. Other times, it infects domestic livestock who then infects their owners, which is what happened during the 2012 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The other significant way in which pandemics have spread is through crowded marketplaces featuring live animals. In these areas, the virus can quickly chaotically spread between wildlife and livestock and people in one general location. This is how the SARS pandemic started in 2003, and it is a leading explanation for how the COVID-19 pandemic began at the end of last year. While both of these outbreaks originated in China, these markets exist all over the world, meaning that the next pandemic could start in any number of countries.

We must disrupt this livestock-wildlife-people loop. If we want to stop future pandemics, we need to work as a global community to stop the movement of the virus from animals to people, both in wildlife markets and in areas where animal populations may contain potentially dangerous diseases.

This will require us to do four different things. First, we must end the global trade in wildlife that carry potential human diseases and clean up the markets that create hotbeds for contagious pathogens. Second, we must create a healthier relationship with nature, particularly in the tropical areas where these diseases are most likely to originate. Third, we must more effectively manage the health of global livestock, to ensure that we short-circuit loops that could bring diseases to people.  And finally, we must have monitoring mechanisms at each of these steps to ensure that diseases aren’t slipping through this safety net.

The US government can achieve all four of these goals by funding a collective global effort to stop the trade in dangerous wildlife while helping developing nations improve livestock husbandry, deal with illegal trade and reduce deforestation. Like the original Marshall Plan, this investment would yield massive payoffs for the whole world.

Here’s how it would work. Medium- and high-income countries would absorb the costs of closing wildlife markets through their existing health inspection, police and judiciary services. They would also allocate funds to reduce deforestation, improve wildlife trade regulations and optimize livestock management procedures in tropical countries where the next pandemic might start.

By looking at the cost of reducing forest loss and fragmentation in these areas, coupled with trade, livestock, and monitoring measures, we can expect the total costs of these efforts to be about $250 billion over the next 20 years. As we have tragically learned, this is much less than the current cost of containing diseases once they emerge or dealing with the human, medical and economic costs when containment fails.

In fact, if the United States were to share these costs between the G7 countries, the bill would come out to around $35 billion, which is roughly a quarter of the CDC budget over that same time span at current levels. In other words, for a quarter of the amount that we spend on monitoring and containing infectious diseases once they reach our shores, the United States could dramatically reduce the chances of a pandemic in the first place.

We have already started to see the tragic consequences of inaction in the face of a global pandemic, and we will probably continue to see those consequences for a few more months. That is why it is more important than ever that we set up a fund to prevent global pandemics. By incorporating these funds into one of the next Congressional stimulus bills, we can permanently break this cycle of madness. 

Lee Hannah serves as Conservation International’s Senior Scientist for Climate Change Biology. He also works with the Bren School and UC Santa Barbara and the National Botanical Institute in Cape Town, South Africa.

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