They say the best medicine is preventative – but can the next pandemic be averted? As governments around the world brace for what scientists have ominously declared an “era of pandemics”, the focus remains on reactive measures, such as stopping the spread of disease and developing vaccines and treatments. But is it possible to prevent outbreaks in the first place?
The CDC reports that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, most likely spread to humans from bats via wildlife trafficking. The illegal wildlife trade is not only a threat to biodiversity, it also involves close contact and unsanitary conditions for wild animals and humans and increases the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases – diseases that can be transmitted from wild animals to humans or vice versa.
Understandably, public fear of bats and wildlife exposure has increased. But despite the disreputable origin story of this virus, the CDC reports that direct transmission from wildlife to humans is incredibly rare and unlikely to be a source of infection in the United States.
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While the threat of wild animals as carriers of disease prompts many to redouble their efforts to eradicate them, the solution to preventing the transmission of zoonotic diseases may in fact be quite the opposite. Effects such as habitat destruction, urban development, and climate change often push wildlife into smaller, confined spaces with unsafe living conditions, increasing opportunities for disease contraction and spread. Numerous reports suggest that greater conservation efforts could reduce disease risk.
“As a global community, we are using wildlife inappropriately and unsustainably and destroying natural habitats. We’re invading their habitats, we’re harvesting them unsustainably, we’re bringing them into super stressful conditions which are often unsanitary and those are all conditions that can lead to this type of spillover event,” said Winnifred Frick, Chief scientist from Bat Conservation International, in a video discussing the link between bats and the coronavirus. “Habitat protection is essential. Leaving wild places for wild animals to be wild animals is an essential part of the solution.
In 2020, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that the most effective disease prevention is holistic, integrating human, ecological and wildlife sciences. Peter Daszak, chair of the IPBES workshop, says that when it comes to COVID-19, there is “a clear link between animals and humans and a clear link to environmental change in Southeast Asia and by land use change and continued encroachment on wildlife habitat”. wildlife trade.
Managing these risks could make a profound difference in preventing transmission of pathogens from wildlife to humans, as well as limiting transmission and risk within wildlife, a growing threat to biodiversity on a global scale. Daszak offers “this transformative shift from waiting for pandemics to emerge and dealing with them reactively to control them, to actually trying to prevent them by dealing with the underlying drivers, land use change, climate change and wildlife trade. ”
Additionally, studies of wildlife pathogens (even those that cannot be transmitted to humans) continue to be instrumental in the development of vaccines and science that informs preventive practices. “Human health, animal health and environmental health are interconnected and all disciplines involved in understanding these relationships,” said Patrice Klein, National Program Manager for Fish and Wildlife Health, Forest Service of the United States. ‘USDA, in a video titled “Health for Wildlife”. ” “There is an interdependence between all the components.”
Investing in conservation science, including studies of biodiversity, wildlife ecology, wildlife disease and habitat conservation, is now more important than ever. In this interconnected world, conservation science that supports wildlife could also prove useful in helping us prevent an era of pandemics.
Brianna Mann is a Flagstaff-area wildlife professional who has worked with everything from bats, otters and jumping mice to spring conservation. She can be contacted at [email protected]