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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.

Go deeper: How we'll memorialize COVID

Go deeper

Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: CDC says some immunocompromised people can get fourth COVID shot — FDA panel endorses Pfizer vaccines for 5-11 year olds — Moderna says vaccine shows strong immune response in kids
  2. Health: COVID cases, deaths at meat plants were far higher than previously thought — 96% of Tyson Foods employees vaccinated ahead of mandate deadline — U.S. releases updated vaccination, testing rules for foreign travelers
  3. Politics: Louisiana lifts mask mandate except for some schools — Alabama governor orders state agencies to fight federal vaccine mandate — Axios-Ipsos poll: Confidence in Biden COVID recovery tumbles
  4. Education: Benefits of vaccine for children outweigh risks, FDA says — Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Updated Aug 26, 2021 - Health

WHO experts: "Window is closing" on study into origins of COVID-19

A man enters the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) on June 15, 2021, in Geneva. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Experts studying the origins of COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the study has stalled and the "window of opportunity" is closing to trace the virus' origins.

Why it matters: The scientists warn in an essay in the journal Nature that any further delay "will render some of the studies biologically impossible," hampering understanding of the origins of the pandemic.

Biden headed to the Hill as Democrats struggle to reach deal on spending bills

President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leave a House Democratic Caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 1. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

President Biden on Thursday morning will meet with the House Democratic Caucus on Capitol Hill to provide an update about his Build Back Better agenda and the bipartisan infrastructure deal, according to a White House official.

Driving the news: The meeting comes as Democrats struggle to reach a deal on the spending bills. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN on Sunday that Democrats were planning to reach an agreement on the infrastructure package this week, before Biden's departure to Europe, which is slated for later on Thursday.