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Preventing the next pandemic will cost $22.2 billion a year, scientists say

Better protections of forests, wildlife trade monitoring and research into diseases are needed to prevent a repeat of a zoonotic disease outbreak.
The Wider Image: In Congo, part-time hunters boost income with bushmeat
Mohamed Esimbo Matongu carries thatch to use for the roof of his hut deep in the forest near the city of Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo, where an Ebola outbreak was recently detected.Thomas Nicolon / Reuters

As the world grapples with the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists are warning the funding needed to prevent the next zoonotic disease outbreak is severely lacking — leaving everyone vulnerable.

The price tag for protecting and monitoring pristine forests and wildlife trade where diseases emerge is an estimated $22.2 billion to $30.7 billion, according to the report in the journal Science.

While hefty, it pales in comparison to the minimum of $8.1 trillion in losses globally resulting from the current pandemic, the report said.

“Everybody has a vested interest in stopping it from happening again,” Andrew Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University and the lead author of the research, said.

New epidemics — such as SARS, MERS and HIV — appear to emerge every four or five years, he said.

Investing in research including genetic libraries of viruses would hasten the response from testing to vaccine development when new diseases emerge, he added.

And to catch the disease spillover from animals to humans at the source, there needs to be a global push to reduce deforestation and restrict and monitor wildlife trade, as well as livestock.

"If you're worried about safety and protection, the cost of doing this is less than 2 percent of the military spending by the top 10 militarized countries in the world," Dobson said.

People wearing protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a wet market in Shanghai on Feb. 13, 2020.
People wearing protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a wet market in Shanghai on Feb. 13.Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images

There are examples in which monitoring health, wildlife and the environment in collaboration have shown promise.

In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, deep in the forests of Central Africa, carcasses of gorillas and chimpanzees infected by the Ebola virus sparked outbreaks among humans after hunters unknowingly consumed the infected meat, according to Johannes Refisch, program manager for the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership.

Programs to monitor the health of both the wildlife and the people were established in Gabon, the Republic of Congo and other countries to detect the disease earlier, said Refisch, who contributed to a similar U.N. report on the prevention of pandemics earlier this year.

"If our monitoring system can detect the disease, we can have hopefully enough time to get some medical doctors in and find a response. This is important for research but also gives local communities better protection," he said.

But such programs aren't pervasive enough to keep up with the threats.

A new outbreak of Ebola was declared in the Democratic Republic of Congo on June 1 by the World Health Organization, just weeks before a previous outbreak in another region of the country was finally over.

Rampant deforestation and wildlife trade are two major causes of disease spillover.

As human populations encroach on natural environments, the exposure to wildlife — including bats or rats — that carry diseases is increased, experts say. But there also are other compounding factors.

“It's not always that when we destroy a forest, then a new disease will come up," Refisch said, adding that climate change and its effect on rain and temperature could be affecting how and when diseases emerge.

Hogs stand in a pen on the Francis Gilmore farm near Perry, Iowa, on April 28, 2009, near Perry, Iowa.
Hogs stand in a pen on the Francis Gilmore farm near Perry, Iowa, on April 28, 2009, near Perry, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP

Wildlife markets and trade, in addition to domesticated animals, across the world pose high risks for disease spread, particularly in countries that don't have the resources to enforce regulations on the industry.

"It's a horrible hygiene situation packing live, dead, wild, domestic animals together," the World Wildlife Fund's Margaret Kinnaird, who co-authored Thursday's report.

Regional and international agencies already exist to regulate wildlife trade, but these groups are vastly underfunded and lack the mandate and coordination to look for zoonotic diseases, the report said.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which oversees wildlife trafficking, has an annual budget of $6 million.

At the regional level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a mere $30,000 allocated annually for wildlife trade monitoring, the report said.

Yet, the scale of the industry far outpaces that with the value of illegal wildlife trade pegged at as much as $23 billion in 2016, according to the World Bank.

Scientists are calling for agencies monitoring wildlife to be funded $500 million annually in order to prevent the next pandemic.

Funding in a similar range is also needed for the livestock industry where diseases such as swine and avian flu are known to emerge around the world.

But particularly for poorer countries, governments tend to prioritize other sectors above disease control, Bernard Bett, a senior scientist for the International Livestock Research Institute, said.

"It's only when you have major pandemics like now when people are coming up, 'Oh, yeah, we should be looking at these issues,'" he said.

The investments in prevention come with cost benefits beyond averting a pandemic. Protecting forest ecosystems offers $18.6 billion annually by reducing carbon emissions, Thursday's report said.

Maintaining biodiversity also prevents a species from being wiped out when diseases strike and improves other resources that humans rely on, such as soil and water.

"We need to get a handle on our really broken relationship with nature," Kinnaird said.