Protecting nature to avert future pandemics

A monkey at the Monkey Hospital in Lopburi province, Thailand in June 2020, captured as part of a sterilisation campaign to control the population of monkeys. (Keystone/EPA/Rungroj Yongrit)

As discussions at the World Health Assembly this week focus on ending the Covid pandemic and how to better prepare for the next one, many are pointing to the need to address the root environmental causes and halt the destruction of ecosystems.

The World Health Assembly held this week in Geneva has put the spotlight on the global response to the Covid pandemic. While talks revolve mainly around overburdened health systems, universal access to vaccines and financing Covax, one of the major points that will need discussing further down the line is how to prevent a future pandemic. This, for many experts, means understanding the links between human health and the environment.

“The assembly will be very much focusing on Covid-19 and the consequences of this pandemic, on issues related to vaccine equity. But the fact that you are talking about Covid-19, you're talking as well about the causes of Covid-19 and if you look upstream, you reach the environment,” said Dr Maria Neira, director of public health, environment and social determinants of health department at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking to Geneva Solutions.

Why it matters. The pandemic has brought to the surface yet another one of the disastrous ramifications of interfering with nature. Deforestation, industrial farming, the expansion of urban spaces as well as climate change is driving animals out of their natural habitats and forcing them to migrate into other areas, increasing the chances of diseases jumping from one species to another and then to humans.

In wildlife markets, species from different continents that would otherwise never come into contact are put together in close quarters in unsanitary conditions, creating a perfect breeding ground for zoonoses – diseases that are passed from animals to people.

“We have known about this for a while now, studies have been made, these are discussions that were being held, but we never actually considered it seriously enough until Covid,” Aslihan Tumer, head of global campaigns at World Wildlife Fund International, explained to Geneva Solutions.

Three quarters of infectious outbreaks are attributed to such diseases. In the case of Covid-19, a spillover from bats to another species and then to humans has been regarded as the most likely source until now, though allegations that have resurfaced this week that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, have sparked another round of heated debates.

How we’re all connected. A concept that has been gaining traction is the “one health” approach. It sustains that human, animal, and environmental health are interdependent. Around since the early 2000s, it argues for collaboration between authorities and academic sectors to better understand and tackle health issues.

“f you were to build a road through the Amazon forest, you have an increased risk of a spillover, because you create a human and wildlife interface there,” Tumer explained.

“What one health is supposed to do, but is not being implemented right now, is to actually make sure that collaboration and coordination exists between different decision makers,” she added.

While governments are failing to implement this approach, it has made some headway at the global level, she noted. On 17 and 18 May, an international expert panel involving the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the WHO met for the first time.

Initiated by France and Germany, the panel aims to better understand how diseases from animal origin emerge and spread, on the basis of the one health approach.

The European Union has been particularly supportive. At the Global Health Summit held by the G20 on 21 May, the European Commission’s chief Ursula Von der Leyen said: “The G20 acknowledges that the loss of biodiversity and the expansion of human activity into nature and wildlife bring us pandemics. It is a big step forward for the evidence-based one health approach.”

The pandemic has also raised public awareness on the matter. A recent survey conducted by WWF in the United States, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar showed that 85 per cent of respondents supported a one health approach to avert future pandemics.

"We first asked if they had heard about the one health approach and awareness wasn't so high, but when it was explained that it is the link between human health, animal health and environmental health, people were very supportive," Tumer noted.

The survey also showed a 30 per cent drop in wildlife consumption due to the pandemic.

Arguing for prevention. With a quarter of all diseases and all deaths attributed to environmental factors, such as air, soil and water pollution, the connection between our health and protecting the environment seems like a no-brainer, but putting the one health approach into practice is a bit more complicated. For Neira, it has to do with the fact that it is all about prevention.

"Governments won’t invest in general on primary prevention, because you can’t see the results and you can’t count it in numbers,” she said.

“The connection between air pollution and health for instance is easier because people understand if I breathe this, I feel bad and my eyes are irritated. We need to pass those messages on how the environment is impacting your health, for people to understand that this is about diseases, it's not just about the planet or polar bears.”

Investing in prevention of pandemics would also come cheaper than living through them, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, based in Germany. The organisation states in its latest report that the economic impact from Covid is at least 100 times greater than the estimated cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics.

As noted by the WHO’s director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks to the World Health Assembly, only three per cent of global health budget currently goes towards prevention and promotion.

Opportunities ahead. The health sector has remained on the sidelines of key climate and environmental negotiations up until now. With the Biodiversity Summit Cop15 to take place in Kunming, China, in October and the Climate Summit Cop26 to be held in November in Glasgow, it could be an opportunity for them to play a greater role.

Discussions of a new global treaty to fight pandemics, which have been postponed by the World Health Assembly to November, will also be a chance for the environmental aspect to be raised.

Read also: Pandemic treaty talks postponed: World Health Assembly so far

"It doesn't correspond to me to say what should be on the pandemic treaty, and of course the member states will decide all of that, but it's clear that if we want to reduce vulnerability to future crises, if we want to make sure that human health is the least vulnerable as possible, we need to stop the degradation of biodiversity,” Neira said.

“I expect that stopping this battle with nature will be one of the strong components of any treaty that aims at reducing vulnerability for human health.”

Echoing Neira’s remarks, Tumer said: "If this treaty does happen, it really needs to look into the one health approach and not just pay lip service to the concept.”

One key aspect to look out for is whether the treaty speaks to other relevant instruments such as the Convention on Biodiversity, she concluded.