Ecological destruction and unsustainable consumption have entered humanity into an "era of pandemics," according to a new report.
"Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before," says the report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a global expert body advising governments.
The authors say roughly $50 billion per year in pandemic prevention would spare the world about $1 trillion per year on average in economic damage, not to mention the toll in human suffering.
The report suggests ways to shift the focus to prevention, rather than trying to contain pandemics after they happen.
As of July, COVID-19's economic toll was at least $8 trillion and counting, the authors say.
It's just the latest costly emerging infectious disease, following HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Zika, H1N1 swine flu and others.
All of these deadly diseases originated in animals before "spilling over" into humans. Nearly three-quarters of all emerging diseases have animal origins. And there are hundreds of thousands more possibly infectious viruses that have not been discovered yet, the report notes.
But don't blame the animals. The rate of spillover has increased because of human activities.
COVID-19 is a prime example of the problem, the authors say. The coronavirus that causes the disease likely emerged from bats in China, where expanding human populations are increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitat. It probably spread through the wildlife trade, at a market where vendors sell wild animals for food and medicine.
Deforestation, agricultural expansion, urbanization and other land-use changes are responsible for about a third of all new diseases to emerge since 1960, the report says. The $100 billion-plus global wildlife trade is also responsible for the spread of new and existing diseases and is a threat to biodiversity.
Not too late
However, "this is not a doom and gloom report saying the world's going to end and it's too late," said report author Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global health, conservation and development organization. "This is an optimistic call for action."
The current strategy to deal with pandemics is to wait for them to emerge and try to identify them before they spread, Daszak said.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the flaws in that plan. Chinese authorities tried to contain it after the disease emerged late last year, but it was too late.
"And here we are waiting for a vaccine and drugs to work," Daszak said. "It's not a good strategy. We need to do more."
The report calls for "transformative change towards preventing pandemics."
Some of that change needs to come from consumers.
One change involves eating meat.
Demand for meat drives increased pandemic risk in two ways, the report says. Feeding food animals is a major driver of deforestation. Also, intensive animal agriculture, which packs many animals into small spaces, often in close proximity to people, makes it easy for germs to jump species.
"We can continue to eat meat," Daszak said, "but we need to do it in a way that is far more sustainable if we want to get rid of pandemics."
The report suggests taxes on meat or livestock or other ways to incorporate the costs of pandemics into the price of production and consumption.
Consumers also can drive change by pressuring companies to reduce deforestation, for example.
"Global for-profit companies care about what we, the public, think about them," Daszak said. "They respond when people call them out."
Government policy should focus on pandemic prevention as well, the authors say.
Emerging-disease risk should be factored into any large-scale land use planning. Wildlife trade enforcement should focus on reducing or removing species at high risk of spreading diseases. And increased disease monitoring should focus on the links between human health, animal health and the environment, known as the One Health approach.
All these suggestions, he noted, are "easy to say, really difficult to do."
These measures and others would cost about $40 billion to $58 billion per year, the report says.
But with the bill for pandemics averaging a trillion dollars per year, Daszak said, "an ounce of prevention is worth a hundred pounds of cure."