Aug 18, 2021 - Health

New report calls for preventing human pandemics at the animal source

Image of live animal market Shanghai

Skulls of moray eels hang in a seafood market in Shanghai. Photo: Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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.

What to watch: Whether funding for such "One Health" approaches is included in pandemic preparation bills being discussed in Congress.

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