The Covid-19 outbreak is pitched to cost the world anywhere between $8.1 and $15.8 trillion in damages, not evening mentioning the deaths of over 633,600 people and an immeasurable amount of human misery. In stark comparison, a new analysis argues another future pandemic could be avoided for a relatively low global annual investment of $30 billion, a tiny fraction of the amount world powers splash on the military each year.
The focus of the investment would not be healthcare, but conservation, veterinarian medicine, and the environment. This is because the wildlife trade and the destruction of tropical forests are some of the biggest factors to emerging pathogens. The majority of the world’s major disease outbreaks in recent decades – Covid-19, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, HIV, swine flu, bird flu, and so on – have been zoonotic diseases that originated in a non-human animal. In fact, one study has estimated that at least 60 percent of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated in non-human animals.
With this in mind, a multi-disciplinary team of ecologists and economists from Princeton University looked to see how much it would cost to make our ecosystems more “water-tight” from zoonotic diseases and dramatically decrease the risk of a new emerging pathogen. Reported in the journal Science, they argue an annual investment of $30 billion should be enough to offset the costs of preventing (or at least slashing the risk of) another global pandemic. This roughly equates to just 1 to 2 percent of annual military spending by the world’s 10 wealthiest countries.
“If we view the continuing battle with emerging pathogens such as COVID-19 as a war we all have to win, then the investment in prevention seems like exceptional value,” Andrew Dobson, lead study author and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, said in a statement.
One of the main avenues would be reducing deforestation. Tropical forests are huge reservoirs of viruses and other potential pathogens. When humans disturb these forests and build settlements on their edges, contact with wildlife increases and the risk of zoonotic disease spillover rises. The researchers argue that an annual sum of $9.6 billion would pay for enough forest-protection payments to outcompete deforestation economically and achieve a 40 percent reduction of deforestation in locations with a high risk for virus spillover.
Next comes improved monitoring and regulation of the wildlife trade. The recent study calls for new “laws to ban the national and international trade of high-risk disease reservoir species” and regulations to “keep primates, bats, pangolins, civets, and rodents out of markets." The researchers say further monitoring and regulation of the wildlife trade could be carried out for the “trivial cost” of $500 million a year.
Finally, the world requires better early disease detection, the study argues. This would involve anything from scientific research on the source and location of emerging pathogens to developing the tests needed to monitor future outbreaks. The world also needs to start taking a more comprehensive look at large-scale agriculture, since farming livestock is also one of the riskiest human-animal interfaces for zoonotic disease spillover, as seen with the outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu.
Many of the issues discussed in the research are often pushed aside as secondary concerns. Will the Covid-19 pandemic change this short-sighted approach? It’s uncertain, although it does appear that some governments are starting to take notice. For example, Vietnam banned wildlife trade with immediate effect this week in order to reduce the risk of a new disease outbreak.