• Human activity is to blame for COVID-19, say 22 international experts.
  • But we can prevent future pandemics by better protecting Earth’s natural resources.
  • There are 1.7 million ‘undiscovered’ viruses in mammals and birds, 827,000 of which could infect humans.
  • But it’s not too late to change course and rebuild our defences.
  • Experts say switching our efforts to prevention would reduce the threat.

Here’s the good news: we can prevent future pandemics.

But only if we take steps to protect the environment and restore its natural defences, according to an international group of 22 leading scientists.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic,” said Dr Peter Daszak, chair of the panel which was convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

COVID-19 is the sixth global health crisis since the flu pandemic of 1918 and “its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities,” the report says, adding that there are 1.7 million “undiscovered” viruses in mammals and birds – up to 827,000 of which could infect people.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land, unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people.” This contact allows viruses to cross over between species and spread more rapidly around the world.

This is how pandemics start and spread – and their frequency is increasing, say scientists.
Image: IPBES

Prevention is better than reaction

The group says that, rather than tackling pandemic outbreaks after they occur, we should be acting now to prevent them through greater conservation efforts and ending the overexploitation of Earth’s resources.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability.”

Daszak says the fact that human activity has brought about such a rapid change in the natural environment proves we also have the ability to make change in the right direction – but “our approach has effectively stagnated”.

Global action needed

Forecasting that the global cost of the COVID-19 pandemic may already be as high as $16 trillion, the IPBES report calls for the creation of a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to coordinate a global action to prevent future outbreaks.

If no action is taken, the report says future pandemics will happen more often, spread faster and kill more people than COVID-19. The panel says the economic cost of the current pandemic is 100 times the estimated cost of preventing it by protecting nature.

They call for “changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics. This could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities,” the report says.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts that by 2030 global meat consumption per head will reach 45.3 kg, almost double the level in the mid-1960s.

Although COVID-19 lockdowns have reduced air pollution, a recent study warned that increased poverty caused by the pandemic could lead to more environmental damage as people return to activities like wildlife poaching and clearing forests for crops to survive.

The World Economic Forum’s recent report, Vision Towards a Responsible Future of Consumption, called on consumer industries to encourage sustainable consumption, reducing environmental impacts and developing a circular economy, reusing resources to reduce waste.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.