An essay published today in the journal Nature highlights four leading causes of pathogen spillover and calls on global policymakers to take urgent actions that will help prevent future pandemics of zoonotic origin.

The essay brings together the professional knowledge of public health, infectious disease and conservation experts to make the case for science-based actions to support proven strategies that will protect nature, save lives, lessen the long-term economic costs of pandemics, and ultimately support the health of the planet and humanity overall.

The authors highlight that there has been little concrete action taken to mitigate pandemic risk despite the prevalence of research revealing spillover of pathogens from animals to people as the predominant cause of emerging infectious disease. With the World Health Assembly now negotiating a global pandemic agreement, the pending creation of a global pandemic prevention fund, and the global biodiversity framework scheduled to be agreed upon by the Convention on Biological Diversity later this year – the landscape is ripe to address the disconnect.

Susan Lieberman, Vice President, International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “In the case of modern pandemics, an ounce of prevention is really worth trillions of dollars of cure. There is much discussion of pandemic preparedness and response, but the most cost-effective and equitable approach is to prioritize prevention at source. The science is clear on actions needed to prevent pathogen spillover; business as usual cannot be an option.”

“Spillover has likely caused every viral pandemic over the last century and its potential to trigger new pandemics is only growing,” said Dr. Neil Vora, the essay’s lead author, public health physician and pandemic prevention fellow at Conservation International. “We are urgently asking the world’s policymakers to grow investments in preventing pandemics at the source. With three hugely important policy moments on the horizon, the time to act is now. Failure to do so will leave the world in a perilous position, one where the next global pandemic remains on the horizon.”

Four key actions must be taken to prevent pandemics before they start, all of which would limit opportunities for humans and animals to exchange viruses:

  1. Protect tropical and subtropical forests;
  2. Ban or strictly regulate commercial wildlife markets and trade, particularly live birds and mammals;
  3. Increase biosecurity when dealing with farmed animals (domestic and wildlife); and
  4. Improve health and economic security for people living in emerging infectious disease hotspots.

The essay also discusses three key opportunities for the global community to take urgent action in support of the above. They are:

  1. The global pandemic fund that the G20 recently agreed to create must direct investments to prevent spillover in the places at highest risk – Southeast Asia to Central Africa to the Amazon Basin;
  2. The international agreement under negotiation at the World Health Assembly must ensure more equitable international action around pandemics by addressing prevention at source—the upstream drivers that lead to pathogen spillover; and
  3. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework must address the negative feedback cycle between environmental degradation, wildlife exploitation, and the emergence of pathogens.

Read the full essay and its policy recommendations here.

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Supporting quotes from the essay’s authors:

  • Lee Hannah, senior scientist for climate change biology at Conservation International;

“Designed and funded right, these three commitments could bring a preventative health approach to the entire planet, help heal our relationship with nature and prevent future pandemics. We hope that by highlighting what we know can work, we will guide decisionmakers toward an affordable and effective solution that is currently overlooked in the race to reduce pandemics,” said Hannah.

  • Mariana M. Vale, assistant Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change;

Land use change, especially deforestation in tropical countries, is a major source of pathogen spillover from wildlife to humans. Tackling tropical deforestation, therefore, can drastically reduce the likelihood of a new pandemic like COVID-19, while also safeguarding indigenous peoples, biodiversity, and the world’s climate,” said Vale.

  • Raina Plowright, professor in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University;

In the case of modern pandemics, an ounce of prevention is really worth trillions of dollars of cure. There is much discussion of pandemic preparedness and response, but the most cost-effective and equitable approach is to prioritize prevention at source. The science is clear on actions needed to prevent pathogen spillover; business as usual cannot be an option,” said Plowright.

  • Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

“Spillover is the spark that ignites pandemics. World leaders must urgently act to prevent pandemics before they start and not solely rely on measures that seek to limit disease outbreaks. This requires looking beyond the walls around our institutions and disciplines that we’ve built that obscure and forestall spillover prevention, which affords a more equitable and cost-effective response to pandemic risk,” said Bernstein.

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About Conservation International: Conservation International protects nature for the benefit of humanity. Through science, policy, fieldwork and finance, we spotlight and secure the most important places in nature for the climate, for biodiversity and for people. With offices in 30 countries and projects in more than 100 countries, Conservation International partners with governments, companies, civil society, Indigenous peoples and local communities to help people and nature thrive together. Go to Conservation.org for more, and follow our work on Conservation NewsFacebookTwitterTikTokInstagram and YouTube.