Stopping new pandemics of animal origin would cost only 5% of the losses they cause | Science


The current covid pandemic is far from a unique event. Ebola, MERS, Zika, avian flu… Viral pathogens are jumping into human populations at an ever-increasing rate, causing more severe and more widespread global epidemics. In the last half century, an average of 3.3 million people die each year due to these viruses of animal origin, a figure calculated before covid and which was already increasing. And yet, not nearly enough is being done to stop this jump. This is what twenty specialists denounce in a study, who also propose a calculation so that the rulers see that it is worth trying.

It would be an extraordinarily profitable investment: a complete and global plan to stop the spread of these viruses from fauna to people would only cost 5% of the losses they cause each year. “Spending just five cents on the dollar can help prevent the next tsunami of lives lost to pandemics by taking cost-effective steps to prevent the wave from breaking, rather than paying trillions to pick up the pieces,” sums up Aaron Bernstein, Harvard researcher and author. lead of the study, which is published in Science Advances.

A larger and more connected human population constantly creates more opportunities for viruses to spread once they have become established in human populations, explains another co-author, Andy Dobson of Princeton University. “We need to focus more on preventing the jump of pathogens than on stopping their spread. The impact of covid-19 on the economies and mortality rates of many countries illustrates that prevention is significantly more effective than cure”, explains Dobson.

“We need to focus more on preventing the crossing of pathogens than on stopping their spread”

Andy Dobson, Princeton University

This team of experts calculates, throwing low, that the world spends around 300,000 million euros for deceased people and around 185,000 million in direct economic losses due to emerging zoonotic diseases. And that, as the authors acknowledge, they are not able to include all of them due to the difficulty of estimating the psychological impact, the educational burden of an entire generation or the additional costs derived from medical care postponed due to the pandemic.

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Butchered bats for sale at a market in Indonesia
Butchered bats for sale at a market in IndonesiaUniversity of California Davis

Faced with these enormous figures, the investment in effective preventive measures that would limit the spread of these diseases to humans in the first instance, say the researchers, would be around 18,000 million euros. That figure would serve to reduce the number of deaths by at least half. “The net annual cost of developing mechanisms to significantly reduce the risk of spread is well below the average annual cost of outbreaks. There are consistent economic and environmental benefits to implementing mechanisms that reduce spread rates,” Dobson develops via email. “Even a 1% reduction in the risk of the appearance of viral zoonotic diseases would be profitable,” the study states.

According to their research, there are three primary mechanisms that allow pathogens to jump into human populations: tropical deforestation, which is closely related to livestock and agricultural intensification; the wildlife trade; and the lack of resources to detect these viruses before the emergency arises. And that is where you have to act. “Viruses are detected in humans at a rate of two new species per year,” warns the study. He adds: “Humanity needs a global viral discovery project if we want to prevent future pandemics.”

“Humanity needs a global viral discovery project if we want to prevent future pandemics”

“The resources allocated to reducing deforestation are an investment to prevent future epidemics, but also to mitigate current threats, such as malaria and respiratory diseases associated with forest burning,” says Marcia Castro, director of the Department of Health Global and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Making these investments in prevention generates benefits for human health, the environment and economic development,” Castro details. Additionally, many jobs may be created in a variety of fields as the global economy reconfigures itself in the wake of the pandemic.

The work begins by criticizing that prominent leaders promote plans that require “taking measures only after humans get sick.” “We totally disagree,” they warn. They argue that the jump of viruses from animals to humans is the main source of pandemic risk: “It therefore perplexes us that downplaying the jumps is not considered in influential conversations dedicated to preventing the next pandemic.” Specifically, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, a joint initiative of the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), created after the Ebola epidemic, whose reports and strategies do not mention how to address that initial crossover, is specifically criticized. .

Scientists investigate the jump of animal viruses in species such as bats.
Scientists investigate the jump of animal viruses in species such as bats.Gianluca Battista

For all these reasons, one of the most important measures that must be taken is the hiring of many more people in the veterinary field, because they have an essential role as sentinels of the appearance of diseases. And because, as the study points out, they have been the main defenders of the concept One Health (One Health) that integrates human and animal welfare in general and infectious diseases in particular. However, they are scarce, especially in countries and regions at higher risk. “A country with few veterinarians, many reservoir species and many people who consume or trade wildlife will be at greater risk of zoonoses,” they point out.

Virologist Marion Koopmans, who was part of the mission to find the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan (China), considers that this work is an “interesting plea to focus more on true prevention: trying to reduce outbreaks at the source”, since most pandemic preparedness initiatives “focus on detecting human disease, but that is Put the cart before the horse.” However, her colleague Alina Chan, who defends the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory, review that in the past these specialists investigated in an opaque way and now do not “explain how exactly they will work to improve the security and transparency of virus discovery work.”

“Solving these problems primarily requires political will and international collaboration and cooperation,” says Dobson. As explained by this specialist, reinforcing trained veterinary personnel around the world will greatly increase the productivity of global agriculture and establishing a global database of viral diversity will allow faster development of tests and vaccines for future outbreaks. As US Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said in 2007: “Anything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Anything we do after a pandemic will seem inappropriate.” Unless it serves to put lessons learned into action.

The problem of intensive farming

“No intervention by itself will prevent a pandemic,” they warn in the ‘Science Advances’ study, before outlining a whole set of actions to take into account in the most dangerous or useful areas of the jump from viruses of animal origin to humans. For example, the macro farms, which have given so much to talk about in Spain in recent weeks. “Agricultural intensification and expansion play an important role in the appearance of pathogens,” explains the study. High-density livestock operations can serve as an opportune environment for contagion from wild animals to livestock or as incubators for pandemic virus strains, studies and examples point out. And they conclude: “Large pig and poultry farms are where genetic recombination is needed to obtain pandemic influenza strains, which are most likely to occur.” The appearance of the Nipah virus in Malaysia arose in a large pig farm surrounded by mango trees, next to native forests. This situation created favorable conditions for the spread of Nipah virus from bats to pigs and from pigs to people.

Therefore, feeding 8,000 million people is one of the engines that contributes pressure throughout the globe, due to deforestation, the exploitation of domestic animals or even the breeding of wild animals. “Agriculture must be reformed to minimize, or ideally reverse, land conversion, and the demand for less sustainable food must also be reduced.” An analysis of the hundred largest zoonotic outbreaks in the last 30 years points to agricultural intensification as the main driver of the resurgence of older pathogens such as anthrax, brucellosis and salmonellosis. They give an example of the effort in sustainability: it has cost China 17,000 million euros to close its industry of breeding wild animals for consumption.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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