A new peer-reviewed paper published today in Frontiers, “COVID-19 and the Curse of Piecemeal Perspectives,” emphasizes the steps needed now to prevent future zoonotic pandemics and gives a critique of the many one-off solutions proposed over the past several months since the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. The paper is authored by Dr. Christian Walzer, Executive Director of Health at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Walzer establishes at the start of the paper that the virus responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak originated in wild animals. He writes that this comes as no surprise as history and data make this clear: a majority of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, as globally more than 335 Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) outbreaks, involving 183 distinct pathogens, were reported between 1940-2004; there have been more than 50 outbreaks per decade and the rate is increasing as more than half of these events in recent years originated in wildlife; and among emerging zoonoses, specifically, 72 percent originated in wildlife and the rest in domestic animals.

Walzer writes that the causes are also clear: “The commercial use of wildlife for consumption encompassing both legal and illegal trade is poorly regulated with porous boundaries between the two entities. This trade, particularly in live animals, creates superinterfaces along the food value chain co-mingling species from many different geographies and habitats while creating perfect conditions for the exchange and recombination of viruses.”

While listing numerous steps needed, including long-term, structural changes in addressing future pandemics, Walzer states that the pragmatic, most cost-effective action governments can take with immediate effect is to stop all  commercial trade of wild birds and mammals for human consumption: “Most importantly, this reduces the risk of future zoonotic transmission while also safeguarding resources for those Indigenous Peoples and local communities who rely on wild meat to meet their nutritional requirements.”

Stopping all commercial trade of wild birds and mammals for human consumption is also a policy position issued by WCS on March 28. That policy can be found HERE.

Other steps needed to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics as outlined by Dr. Walzer:

  • First and foremost, we must acknowledge the basic tenet addressed by World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet. Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change, that is making our Earth less habitable.”
  • We have to  acknowledge that zoonotic spillover events and subsequent outbreaks are inevitable, as the interfaces between wildlife and humans increase, primarily due to deforestation and agricultural expansion.
  • Reducing spillover opportunities necessitates multi-faceted approaches that include amongst others, considering and costing wildlife pathogen impacts during land-use change, social marketing campaigns to reduce wildlife demand, providing alternative protein and micro-nutrient sources.
  • Future multidisciplinary and well-funded collaborative One Health approaches are urgently needed to quantify and prioritize spillover risks while informing decision-makers on  implementing risk reduction measures. Pre-emergence research and surveillance need to be paired with participatory, just and community-informed social and behavioral change measures and global outbreak preparedness capacity strengthening.  
  • We must ensure that future food production and security is healthy, sustainable and supports planetary health. A transition of global food production from being a major part of the health, climate and biodiversity crisis towards food production plays a central part in the solutions.

The author gives a critique, also on four “unsound and inconsistent approaches presently being widely promoted in media, and to governments and donor institutions. They are:

  1. A sole focus on markets is insufficient as markets constitute just one part of the wildlife trade supply chain. Along the supply chain, multiple points pose a high risk of zoonotic pathogen transmission, including wholesale trader warehouses, stores, transport, wildlife farms, restaurants, pet shops, and border crossing points where wildlife is consolidated.
  2. Advocacy for closure of only the (as yet undefined) highest-risk markets represents a dangerously unsound approach that discounts the magnitude of the problem.
  3. The focus on only so-called high-risk species lacks evidence and undermines enforcement.
  4. Enforcing hygienic standards, sanitizing markets and restaurants that sell wildlife is similarly being heavily promoted by numerous wildlife trade-related organizations. There is ample evidence, especially from the avian influenza literature, that hygiene and management measures are important, but cannot and will not prevent the resurgence of outbreaks.

Walzer concludes: It all comes down to a numbers game: the more often we force conditions that drive increases in direct contact between wildlife and humans, the higher the likelihood of another spillover event. Timidly tackling a limited number of markets or species and developing standards that purportedly regulate and sanitize wildlife trade are backward-looking, non-scientific, reductionist approaches based on naïve simplifications of interdependencies in disease emergence, economic development, and global interconnectedness.

“We need bold, forward-reasoning organizations and leaders who acknowledge root causes, take responsibility and weather the inevitable pushback from narrowly focused interest groups while also overcoming traditional economic and disciplinary silos to design future health and well-being for all.”