• The rise in the number of pandemics coincides with tropical deforestation.
  • This habitat destruction causes 'spillover' – when viruses jump from wildlife to people.
  • We outline three ways to prevent future pandemics and restore balance in the natural world.

As physicians, we have witnessed how health systems typically prioritize responding to diseases rather than preventing them. Sadly, we are seeing it again.

There have been at least seven pandemics in the past century including COVID-19. Unless we take action, another pandemic is inevitable in the coming years – that action needs to expand beyond responding to outbreaks when they occur.

Governments must develop policies aimed at preventing outbreaks in the first place – a process that the G20 can kickstart in July when it releases the findings of its high-level panel on financing pandemic preparedness and response.

If the G20 is serious about preventing the next pandemic, they need to address the destruction of nature – the underlying driver that enables viruses to jump from wildlife to people.

It’s no coincidence that the accelerating frequency of modern pandemics has coincided with unprecedented levels of deforestation in the tropics. With rainforests shrinking and extinction rates rising, the wildlife species that tend to survive are those able to still live in deforested areas that become inhabited by people. Many of these species carry viruses that then infect humans, a phenomenon known as “spillover”. Activities such as the wildlife trade and animal husbandry in these areas create additional opportunities for spillover as humans and domestic animals interact with wildlife.

In fact, spillover has led to each of the other six pandemics in the past century including HIV. While the source of the COVID-19 pandemic is still being investigated, most experts currently believe spillover is a more likely explanation for its origins than a laboratory leak. But whatever the source of the current pandemic, history demonstrates that spillover will be the most likely cause of whatever pandemic comes next.

Health, pandemics, epidemics

What is the World Economic Forum doing about fighting pandemics?

The first human trial of a COVID-19 vaccine was administered this week.

CEPI, launched at the World Economic Forum, provided funding support for the Phase 1 study. The organization this week announced their seventh COVID-19 vaccine project in the fight against the pandemic.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched in 2017 at the Forum's Annual Meeting – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to these vaccines during outbreaks.

Coalitions like CEPI are made possible through public-private partnerships. The World Economic Forum is the trusted global platform for stakeholder engagement, bringing together a range of multistakeholders from business, government and civil society to improve the state of the world.

Organizations can partner with the Forum to contribute to global health solutions. Contact us to find out how.

To minimize the risk of future pandemics, the G20 must therefore address the underlying factors that cause spillover by pursuing reforms in three different areas:

1. Stop deforestation and reduce spillover

The G20 must help to stop deforestation in tropical areas and reduce human-wildlife contact where deforestation and the risk of spillover is already high. One way would be to support governments in implementing policies that make forests more valuable standing and removing incentives to cut forests down. Providing health and other services for communities living near tropical forests in emerging infectious disease hotspots can further drive down spillover.

2. Address wildlife trade and markets

The G20 must also address the wildlife trade and wildlife markets. Within their own borders, G20 countries should ban or strictly regulate trade in species that pose a public health risk, as well as markets that sell such species; they should also support other countries in doing the same. Funding should be provided to promote alternative livelihoods and nutrition sources for those who rely on the wildlife trade, while preserving subsistence rights of local communities. CITES, the only international legal framework to regulate the wildlife trade, should be amended to include public health considerations into its decision making. Law enforcement and judicial systems, meanwhile, should be bolstered through strengthened legal frameworks and through enhanced cooperation, resourcing, and penalties.

3. Improve livestock management and surveillance

The G20 must consider a third potential vector for spillover: animal husbandry in infectious disease hotspots. It is critical that G20 nations provide financial incentives domestically and abroad for improving livestock management and surveillance so that outbreaks can be avoided or quickly contained before spillover to humans occurs.

Preventing future pandemics

The G20 could implement all of these initiatives for approximately $10 billion dollars per year. That’s almost nothing compared to the millions of lives and trillions of dollars lost during this pandemic.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over in much of the world, many G20 nations can see light at the end of the tunnel. Now is the time for the G20 to forge a new way forward – one that could help prevent another pandemic from happening again.