Recent UN Report on Escaping the “Era of Pandemics”—More Are Coming If We Don’t Change Our Ways

Womble Bond Dickinson

Womble Bond Dickinson

[author: Kim Beane]

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Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

This past July, twenty-two experts from around the world convened for a workshop to discuss issues surrounding biodiversity and pandemics. In November, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published the report from their workshop, indicating that COVID-19 could be just the beginning. Their data showed that unless preventive action is taken, there will be more pandemics that spread faster, kill more people, and lead to disastrous repercussions for the world economy.

The report notes that the origins of pandemics are microbes carried by animal hosts — but don’t blame the animals. It’s almost always something humans do that causes the diseases to emerge: land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, suburbanization, wildlife trade and consumption. As animals and humans begin to collide, the microbes jump ship from the animals and thrive in humans (and are then called zoonoses [zoh-on-uh-seez], diseases going from animals to humans) leading to infections, outbreaks, and pandemics. The report further states that more than five new diseases emerge in people every year “any one of which has the potential to spread and become pandemic.”

Land-use change, which includes deforestation, human settlement in primarily wildlife habitat, the growth of crop and livestock production, and urbanization, is one of the worst culprits. It has reportedly caused the emergence of 30% of new diseases that have been reported since 1960. But land-use change has its co-conspirators — it acts synergistically with climate change and biodiversity loss. When animals’ habitats are destroyed and humans and livestock move in, the dominos start falling.

One of the participants at the IPBES conference and an author of the report, attorney Katie Woolaston of the Queensland University of Technology in Queensland, Australia, penned a brief article in April 2020, entitled “Most laws ignore human-wildlife conflict — this makes us vulnerable to pandemics.” Published in The Conversation, her article foreshadowed the UN report, noting that the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic went deep into the laws, governments, cultures and belief systems of many countries, and at its core was “human-wildlife conflict.” Ms. Woolaston defined human-wildlife conflict as “when the interests of humans and the needs of wildlife overlap in a negative way,” including the illegal trade of wildlife, as well as zoonotic diseases. Both of these unfortunate outcomes of human-wildlife conflict have poverty and urban development as catalysts, and of course, lead to land-use change, and again, the dominos start falling.

So, what does the UN’s IPBES suggest we do to escape the so-called Pandemic Era? Nothing less than transformative change will do, but we and our planet are worth it. The report states that the policy options include

“work that predicts geographic origins of future pandemics, identifies key reservoir hosts and the pathogens most likely to emerge, and demonstrates how environmental and socioeconomic changes correlate with disease emergence. Pilot projects, often at large scale, have demonstrated that this knowledge can be used to effectively target viral discovery, surveillance and outbreak investigation. The major impact on public health of COVID-19, of HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, influenza, SARS and of many other emerging diseases underlines the critical need for policies that will promote pandemic prevention, based on this growing knowledge.”

Policy options include approaches to reducing the role of land-use change in pandemic emergence, as well as strategies for reducing pandemic emergence related to the wildlife trade. Of course, to be successful we must close critical knowledge gaps regarding human-wildlife conflict and pandemics, and ensure a role for all sectors of society — generational, cultural, economical and governmental — to do their part in reducing the risk of pandemics.

To read the policy options, start with the Executive Summary and go to the full report for the details. This link will take you to a Media Release with links for the Executive Summary and the full report.

IPBES (2020) Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Daszak, P., das Neves, C., Amuasi, J., Hayman, D., Kuiken, T., Roche, B., Zambrana-Torrelio, C., Buss, P., Dundarova, H., Feferholtz, Y., Foldvari, G., Igbinosa, E., Junglen, S., Liu, Q., Suzan, G., Uhart, M., Wannous, C., Woolaston, K., Mosig Reidl, P., O’Brien, K., Pascual, U., Stoett, P., Li, H., Ngo, H. T., IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany, DOI:10.5281/zenodo.4147317

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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