At the time of writing this, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the world stands are 201 million, with 4.27 million deaths. According to The Economist, the cost of the pandemic could amount to $10 trillion in forgone GDP over 2020-21. For reference, that’s enough money to buy 66 International Space Stations (at $150 billion a piece).
However, things could have been far worse. To put it into perspective, if you applied the case-fatality rate for SARS (another coronavirus) to the number of worldwide Covid cases, you’d be looking at 22 million dead. In the case of Nipah virus (a distant cousin of the highly contagious measles), it’d be between 80 million to 140 million.
It took 10 months to produce the Covid vaccine and yet, as of June 2021, vaccination rates across Africa and the Middle East are still only around 5%. Humanity cannot rely on vaccines to save them, we have to prioritise prevention.
The scary reality is that every year, two new viruses spill over from their natural hosts into humans (Dobson et al. 2020) and it’s getting worse. “The number of new infectious diseases with epidemic potential has increased nearly four-fold over the past six decades and since 1980, the number of new outbreaks per year has tripled” (Gruber 2021).
We are to blame for that rise. The increase in disease has been linked to environmental degradation with intensive farming, exploitation of wildlife and climate change being key factors (Fox 2020). However, that means we also know some ways to prevent the next pandemic: Reduce deforestation, stop trading wildlife and monitor livestock in high risk areas.
I’ll be going through a few of the preventative measures we could use to ensure that we stand the best chance against a new pandemic and showing that preventing a pandemic is far cheaper (and I mean like peanuts in comparison) to a combatting a pandemic.
Environmental degradation is a major contributor of disease spill over and tropical forest edges act as a launch-pad for novel viruses. In the case of fruit bats, they are more likely to come into contact with humans when their habitats are disturbed. This has contributed to viral emergence in West Africa, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Australia. It could be presumed that reducing wildlife habitats would reduce the transmission, however the opposite is true. By increasing the number of humans and livestock in the area, resultant outbreaks are larger (Dobson et al. 2020).
While relatively little has been invested in preventing deforestation, it wouldn’t cost that much to see noticeable results. A major effort to retain intact forest cover through removing subsidies that support deforestation, reduce private land and protect indigenous rights would see a large return on investment. For $9.6 billion, you could see a 40% reduction in high-risk areas. (Dobson et al. 2020)
The Covid pandemic has brought wet markets and the wildlife trade back into the headlines. These markets pose a serious risk of disease transmission by bringing live and dead animals of different species into contact with hunters, traders and consumers (Dobson et al. 2020). Due to the nature of the market, they are also often unhygienic and lack health screening.
Conditions in the wildlife trade are often similar in standard. Poor transit conditions, lack of health screening and unhygienic warehouses pose a more significant risk as they include moving animals across continents. The US, for example, is one of the biggest importers of wildlife with a booming exotic pet industry (Dobson et al. 2020). However, they also lack laws specifically requiring disease surveillance for incoming wildlife (Fox 2020). This raises the potential of diseased wildlife mixing with native disease reservoirs such as birds. The wildlife trade has long played a part in disease emergence and besides shutting it down, it needs improved biosecurity.
International conventions set up to combat the illegal wildlife trade have long been severely underfunded. The annual budget of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) for example is only $30,000. Even large organisations such as CITES, only have an annual budget of $6 million.
Improving detection, surveillance and preventative measures
A lot of blame for disease emergence has been placed on environmental degradation. However, another significant driver is the breakdown of public health measures, accounting for 39.5% of outbreaks. This includes poor sanitation and hygiene, poor immunisation and lack of disease control (Bogich et al. 2012).
The Covid pandemic is evidence of this problem, with the disease allowed to spread across the globe because of a lack of coordination across countries. There were numerous failings regarding provision of medical care, availability of PPE, diagnostic capacity and vaccines being inequitably distributed (Gruber 2021).
Another serious issue is the substantial underreporting of exposure to zoonotic diseases. There is evidence that bat-origin coronaviruses often spill over into humans, however small clusters of cases may avoid detection. This is a notable problem in regions with poor healthcare or rural areas where people don’t seek treatment in a timely fashion (Dobson et al. 2020).
A basic answer to the problem of poor disease management is to increase budgets and aid. With that, you can implement disease surveillance on a community level to educate and monitor at-risk populations. On a government level, wildlife trade laws could be standardised to improve biosecurity across borders (Daszak et al. 2020).
Prevention is the answer to the growing concern regarding disease outbreaks. A global and inclusive response is needed to reduce deforestation, the wildlife trade and improve conditions in high-risk areas. The scale of the covid pandemic has proven that individual actions are often ineffective, resulting in vaccine nationalism and the hoarding of protective equipment.
While the cost of preventative measures may seem expensive on their own. Within the context of pandemics, they are inexpensive and effective.
Bogich, T. L., Chunara, R., Scales, D., Chan, E., Pinheiro, L. C., Chmura, A. A., … & Brownstein, J. S. (2012). Preventing pandemics via international development: a systems approach. PLoS medicine, 9(12), e1001354.
Daszak, P., Olival, K. J., & Li, H. (2020). A strategy to prevent future epidemics similar to the 2019-nCoV outbreak.
Dobson, A. P., Pimm, S. L., Hannah, L., Kaufman, L., Ahumada, J. A., Ando, A. W., … & Vale, M. M. (2020). Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention. Science, 369(6502), 379-381.
Fox, M. W. (2020). Preventing Pandemics Like COVID-19 and Other Animal-to-Human Diseases. Neuroepidemiology, 54(4), 283-286.
Gruber, K. (2021). Preventing zoonotic pandemics: are we there yet?. The Lancet Microbe, 2(8), e352.