Now Is the Time for the Best Preventative Medicine: Biodiversity

Photo: UNEP

By Azzedine Downes

As we emerge from a year of lockdowns and begin to “build back better,” it is more important than ever to remember what we’ve learned. The pandemic has shown us the fragility of our economy and how reliant it is on our health. For without health, we potentially have nothing.  COVID 19 very well might have begun its own life in a colony of bats and, like many such zoonotic diseases, could have been initially transmitted to humans who interfered with their habitat. If so, it would not be the first time, nor the last. The question now is how do we adapt?

We now know that new infectious diseases have become a more common occurrence in recent decades, and these diseases are predominantly zoonotic in origin. Studies have found that between 60 percent and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans derive from animals; and, of those zoonotic diseases, nearly 72 percent originate in wildlife.

The point here is not that bats, or any other animal species is to blame. We also know now, that human civilization had pressured the natural world to a breaking point.  We have seen that our constant provocation elicited consequences that are as fierce on a microscopic level as they are on a macroscopic one. Human activities and their impacts  — from habitat destruction and wild animal trade to globalization and climate change  —  are driving this dangerous trend.

We have heard from experts that protecting biodiversity is perhaps the most effective form of preventive medicine available to humankind. Mounting evidence shows that biodiversity itself plays a critical role in controlling the spread of zoonotic disease, supporting the growing consensus that protecting biodiversity must be considered an essential component of public health plans—for the alternative will lead to a devastating repeat of the current public health crisis. As governments inject resources into our economies to bring jobs back, can we at the same time end the pressure we applied to nature that brought this on us in the first place?

There are definitely parts of the “economy” that we can change for the better. For example, the scourge of the global wild animal trade dramatically escalates the risk of public health crises as the transportation and sale of animals and animal parts increases. We can also be much more mindful of the general degradation of habitat and biodiversity, which not only jeopardizes our ability to discover potential new medical treatments derived from nature, but also presents a slew of increased risks to human health, such as reduced water security. Our influence is far-reaching but our dominance over wildlife is nothing more than an illusion. Right now we must force ourselves to have a new vision for the future, redefining the boundary between humankind and the natural world and transforming our relationship with wild animals.

It is a worrisome reality that the current national and international systems for protecting habitats, regulating wildlife trade, preventing zoonotic disease risk, and combating wildlife crime are, at best, inadequate and, left as is, will not prevent the next pandemic. Those have not yet been adapted to the new reality and are not ready for the economic rush they are about to receive.  Given the potentially devastating global effect of zoonotic disease spillover events from wildlife, right now is the time to strengthen national and international policies, laws, and regulations that address this issue in a cohesive and coordinated manner. This is the moment for governments to focus on the root causes of emerging zoonotic diseases—unnecessary or avoidable human interactions with wild animals and their habitats that compromise human, animal, and environmental health.

In the U.S., The Preventing Future Pandemics Act is a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL-5) and Fred Upton (R-MI-6), which calls for global action to end the trade in live wildlife for human consumption; provides support to help interested communities that depend on wildlife for subsistence transition to safe and sustainable alternative proteins; and increases investment in U.S.-led anti-wildlife trafficking efforts. It will also end the U.S. import, export, and sale of most live wild animals intended for human consumption as food or medicine.

In the future, we will reflect on this critical time as an inflection point where we chose to either improve our relationship with wildlife, hence protecting ourselves from the next pandemic—or we chose to look the other way and face the dire consequences of our inaction. The strong links between animal, ecosystem, and human health have been demonstrated time and again; such links are inseparable—and thus, the path forward is clear. Governments and intergovernmental bodies must lead by example, enacting these measures immediately to safeguard the health of not only the world’s animals but also of the global human population and the places we all call home. If nothing is done, it is almost assured that another COVID-19-like crisis will occur within our lifetimes. Can our society withstand another pandemic? Let’s hope we never have to find out.

Azzedine Downes is President & CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare

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