Nature and Biodiversity

It’s time to get serious about the causes of pandemics: UN report

A blocked entrance to Huanan seafood market, where the coronavirus that can cause COVID-19 is believed to have first surfaced, is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China March 30, 2020.

Its vital governments stem the spread of zoonotic diseases. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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COVID-19

  • 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.
  • 60% of known infectious diseases are, too.
  • $100 billion has been lost to zoonotic diseases over the past two decades – not accounting for COVID-19.

More than half a million deaths. Almost 12 million infections. And those are just the confirmed numbers. Plus an estimated $9 trillion in economic stimulus from the world’s governments.

All that in a little over six months since the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Meanwhile, infections are still being detected, and in some places rising sharply.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths
Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths Image: Our World in Data

But despite vast efforts worldwide to address the symptoms of the coronavirus pandemic, the root causes have been largely ignored, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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In a new report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission, the UNEP calls for a “one health strategy” to rebalance the needs of people, the planet and animals.

The report describes how so much of human activity in recent years has laid the foundations for pandemics. Increased urbanization, the rapid expansion of cities and industrialized agriculture are some of the biggest causes for concern. Between them, they have caused unprecedented levels of climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental damage.

“Further outbreaks will emerge unless governments take active measures to prevent other zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population,” the report warns.

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Learning from the past

Zoonotic diseases are those that jump from animals to humans. Rats, bats, monkeys and apes, as well as animals kept as livestock, are among those more likely to spread zoonotic germs. Some of the illnesses and diseases that have been spread this way include Ebola, HIV, SARS and MERS, zika, and the new coronavirus.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

“Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen over the past months, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most. To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment," she adds.

A ‘one health’ approach

Around 2 million people die each year because of zoonotic diseases. The final statistics for the COVID-19 death toll can only be guessed at, but it is likely 2020 will record a higher-than-average number.

Most of these deaths occur in poorer countries, the UNEP says. It estimates more than $100 billion of economic activity has been lost over the past two decades due to zoonotic diseases.

Death and disease in low- and middle-income countries affect human communities directly through loss of life and indirectly through loss of livelihood. Small-scale farmers may lose valuable livestock, and find themselves locked into cycles of poverty.

“We need to invest in ending the over-exploitation of wildlife and other natural resources, farming sustainably, reversing land degradation and protecting ecosystem health,” Andersen argues. “Part of this process is the urgent adoption of integrated human, animal and environmental health expertise and policy – a One Health approach.”

UNEP’s One Health initiative makes a series of recommendations that can be taken to prevent future outbreaks, including:

  • Conducting more research into zoonotic diseases.
  • Carrying out cost-benefit analyses of interventions that include the societal impacts of disease.
  • Raising awareness of zoonotic diseases.
  • Improving monitoring and regulation practices.
  • Incentivizing sustainable land management practices that promote biodiversity.
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Nature and BiodiversityHealth and Healthcare SystemsFood and Water
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