May 29, 2021 - Science

Animals are still key to preventing the next pandemic

A bushmeat market in Libreville, Gabon.

A bushmeat market in Libreville, Gabon. Photo: Steeve Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

A new scientific task force is focusing on how to prevent the emergence of diseases that spill over from animals to human beings.

Why it matters: The focus on the origins of COVID-19 has recently turned to the possibility of a lab leak, but a zoonotic spillover is still highly likely, both for the novel coronavirus and for any future pandemic-causing pathogens.

What's happening: The new task force — part of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — aims to explore the link between planetary and human health.

  • "Let's look at the science that has documented what's driving the movement of pathogens from animals to people, and just make very clear what we know, what we don't know and what we need to know," says Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Harvard and the task force leader.

Between the lines: Part of the reason most experts initially assumed — and largely still do — that a zoonotic spillover led to COVID-19 is because we've seen this same scenario play out again and again in past outbreaks.

  • "We know that we share germs with lots of other species, and particularly when we see these emerging pathogens, they're almost all coming from other animals," says Bernstein.
  • Environmental and social changes — including deforestation and the building of new roads into largely untouched forests — are bringing human beings into greater contact with the animals that host potentially dangerous viruses.

By the numbers: Research published last year by Bernstein and his colleagues found that the price of preventing the next pandemic — by slowing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade — could be as little as $22 billion a year.

  • That's roughly 2% of the economic and mortality costs of responding to COVID-19.

The bottom line: The search is still on for the true cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, but whatever the ultimate answer, zoonotic spillovers will remain a growing threat.

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