Study Shows Spending On Conservation For Pandemic Prevention Yields Huge Benefits

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A new study published in the Journal Science yesterday found that the costs preventing pandemics using three conservation strategies are substantially less than the economic losses and mortality costs of responding to a global zoonotic virus once it occurs.  The three strategies — reducing deforestation, limiting global wildlife trade, and increasing early virus detection — are relatively inexpensive compared to the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic and provide billions in environmental benefits too.  Expenditures on prevention measures of between $22B and $31B are a pittance compared to the estimated global costs of COVID-19 of between $8T and $16T, with ancillary environmental benefits of between $18B and $27B.

Why This Matters:  As the study’s authors explain, the risks of zoonotic disease are higher than ever as increasingly intimate associations between humans and wildlife disease reservoirs accelerate the potential for viruses to spread globally.  Currently, we invest very little in these prevention strategies because they are seen as just having environmental benefits.  Perhaps now we will look at the economic benefits of avoiding the costs of a pandemic when determining whether we can afford to fund things like conserving forests and ending illegal wildlife trade — in fact, we can’t afford NOT to fund them.  Indeed, an initial 10-year investment at this level is substantially less – 20 to 30 times less – than the estimated $5.6 trillion the global economy stands to lose in the 2020 recovery response alone.

Deforestation

On deforestation, the study found that investments between US$ 1.5 billion and US$ 9.6 billion could decrease deforestation at a rate that would reduce the risk of forest loss-related disease spillover by 40 percent in high-risk areas. One of the lead authors of the study, Lee Hannah, a biologist with Conservation International, said in a statement, “[o]verall, the study found that reducing deforestation could offer an additional annual savings of US$ 3.7 billion by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the damage they cause as climate change accelerates. In fact, investments in deforestation for disease control would actually offer a net gain when climate change benefits are taken into account, Hannah added.  “To help prevent the next pandemic, it is crucial for countries and businesses to incentivize protecting forests rather than destroying them,” he said.  “Not only is this good for public health, it will help slow climate change.”

Reducing Wildlife Trade

According to the study, wildlife markets and legal and illegal wildlife trade heighten the risk for spillover due to the consumption of bushmeat, poor sanitation in markets, unsafe transit conditions, and more.  If we could increase the budgets for agencies responsible for enforcing laws on illegal wildlife trade up to $250-750 million per year, there would be a high return on the investment, the authors report.  With more funding, these agencies could improve laws and enforcement of illegal trade of high-risk disease species such as primates, bats, and pangolins.

Early Detection

In order to detect viruses before they can spread we need to test humans and animals in areas with high disease emergence risk to decrease potential disease spillover and educate communities about zoonotic diseases to lower contact with wildlife that could lead to disease transfer.  In addition, better education on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) standards in these communities plus encouraging the use of personal protective equipment in areas at high risk of human-livestock contact, like at farms and in bat caves would provide huge benefits.  Finally, improving the conditions of livestock on farms will contain the disease before the livestock is consumed by humans.

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