New report calls for preventing human pandemics at the animal source
A Harvard-led scientific task force argues it would be far less expensive to prevent the next pandemic by stopping the spillover of animal pathogens to humans.
Why it matters: Though it's still unclear precisely how COVID-19 originated, scientists know most emerging human diseases begin in animals.
- Actions to stop spillovers could reduce the chances of future pandemics while preserving the environment.
Driving the news: A paper published in Science this week makes the case that SARS-CoV-2 most likely originated in a spillover event from an infected animal in one of Wuhan's live animal markets.
- That's still far from certain — other possibilities include a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or even a direct infection from a bat — but the overall risk from spillovers is clear.
By the numbers: A new report out today from Harvard's Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source notes that an estimated 50% of emerging infectious diseases over the past 50 years originated in wildlife, including HIV, SARS, Zika and 2009's H1N1 flu pandemic.
- The rate at which those new diseases have been emerging is increasing, driven by deforestation — which brings more humans into contact with potentially disease-carrying animals — wild animal trade and consumption, and industrial animal farms.
But, but, but: The world currently spends less than $4 billion a year addressing those drivers of spillover — a minuscule percentage of the still-growing economic costs of COVID-19 alone.
- "We're spending more on trying to develop pan-coronavirus drugs than we are on actions that could prevent pandemics from all kinds of viruses," says Aaron Bernstein, director of the Harvard task force.
Details: The task force calls for investments in conserving tropical forests, improving biosecurity in large livestock farms — which can amplify diseases that originate in wild animals — and establishing intergovernmental partnerships around spillover risk that include both human and animal health experts.
- Researchers could assess blood samples from humans in viral hotspots who regularly come into contact with wild animals, in the hopes of identifying and arresting spillovers before they go global.