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Less than $30 billion a year to prevent another pandemic

July 23, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage, taking hundreds of thousands of lives and sickening millions. The economic damage already exceeds $10 trillion with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, it would cost less than $30 billion a year to reduce the odds of another zoonotic disease spilling over from animals to humans by taking four actions: forest protection, wildlife trade restriction, farm animal biosecurity, and early detection. The annual cost of these actions is less than one-three-hundredth the toll of the present pandemic, and could save countless lives.


These are among the findings of a new paper in Science by Andrew Dobson and co-authors, including me.

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Zoonotic diseases

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originated in animals and spilled over into humans. It is thought to have originated in bats, though the exact channel of transmission is still to be determined.

COVID -19 is just the latest in a long parade of zoonotic diseases. HIV, which has killed more than 30 million people since the 1980s, originated in chimpanzees in Central Africa. SARS came from horseshoe bats in China’s Yunnan Province. Ebola also came from bats; H1N1 flu came through pigs.

It is estimated that two new viruses a year spill over from animals to humans. While most are far less lethal than the diseases above, the lurid names of some of the lesser-known diseases testify to their gruesomeness:  monkeypox, swine acute diarrheal syndrome, simian foamy virus, and so forth.


Protecting forests

Deforestation is among the largest channels of animal-to-human disease transmission. Deforestation creates a patchwork of forest fragments and edges, bringing wildlife into closer contact with humans and their livestock. Fruit bats whose forest habitats are disturbed are more likely to feed in human settlements. As forest habitat dwindles, the risk does not abate—there may be less wildlife, but with more humans and domestic animals to infect, outbreaks are more likely to spread.


Protecting intact forests would reduce human-wildlife contact at the forest edge, as would restoring the extent of forest patchworks. We looked at the cost of reducing deforestation by half in the 10% of the tropics with the highest risk of zoonotic disease spillover, using a model I built with Jens Engelmann. Direct forest-protection payments to land-users would cost $9.6 billion a year, while including restrictive polices similar to those used by Brazil to cut deforestation in the Amazon by around 70% between 2004-2012 would lower the cost to $1.5 billion a year.


Curtailing wildlife trade

The global wildlife trade is another major channel of animal-to-human disease transmission. Wildlife trading networks ring the globe and every step along their supply chains—hunting grounds, wildlife farms, transit vehicles, warehouses, markets, and slaughterhouses—is conducive to spreading novel zoonotic diseases.

Curtailing trade in high-risk disease reservoir species (primates, bats, pangolins, civets, and rodents) would keep people from contracting—and spreading—zoonotic diseases. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has placed a temporary ban on wildlife consumption and is considering phasing out the estimated $20 billion wildlife farming industry. Budgets for the institutions devoted to monitoring and enforcing regulations on the estimated $7-23 billion illegal wildlife trade could be boosted from less than $10 million a year to a more robust $500 million a year. Restrictions on wildlife trade should be directed toward urban markets for pets and luxury wild meat; not forest-dependent people.


Biosecurity for animal agriculture

Farmed animals and livestock are another big reservoir of emerging diseases. Zoonotic diseases from farmed animals include bird flu (H5N1), swine flu (H1N1), and Nipah virus. The transmission channels from farmed animals to humans are well-recognized, and biosecurity measures to reduce these risks are well-established. Veterinary health programs already feature prominently in pandemic prevention packages in Congress. We estimate that enhancing farm biosecurity in 139 countries would cost $476-852 million a year.


Early detection

Many diseases lurk in wildlife. A program of early detection could discover diseases with pandemic potential before they make the leap to humans. Some zoonotic diseases may have already spilled over from animals to people, existing at low levels for weeks, months, or even years. Their symptoms may mimic, and easily be confused with, more common maladies. “Syndromic surveillance” in rural clinics and programs to monitor diseases in wild bats, primates, and other high-risk wildlife could cost between $337-$619 million a year.


An ounce of prevention; a pound of cure

COVID-19 has taken more than half a million lives worldwide, and counting. The economic cost of this death toll is estimated between $2.5-10.2 trillion. The damage to the global economy from COVID-19 may exceed $5 trillion in lost GDP in 2020 alone, according to the International Monetary Fund. Aside from COVID-19, the cost of other periodic zoonotic diseases ranges from modest (Nipah; Zika) to enormous (the 1918 flu; HIV).

Meanwhile, the cost of prevention is much smaller. The four actions we recommended above would cost $22-30 billion per year—less than one-three-hundredth the costs of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

A big piece of missing information is how much the actions above would reduce the likelihood of future zoonotic diseases emergence. But we estimate that even if they reduce the likelihood of a future COVID-19 by a quarter, they would be more than worth it.

The actions we propose have other important co-benefits too. Protecting forests would keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Additional investment in remote clinics would doubtless improve the health of many rural people. And curtailing the illegal wildlife trade would conserve endangered species. But even on the basis of pandemic prevention alone, their worth more than justifies their cost. A small investment in preventing future pandemics would yield a large return in lives saved and everyday activities resumed.


CITATION: Andrew P. Dobson, Stuart Pimm, Lee Hannah, Les Kaufman, Jorge A. Ahumada, Amy W. Ando, Aaron Bernstein, Jonah Busch, Peter Daszak, Jens Engelmann, Margaret Kinnaird, Binbin Li, Ted Loch-Temzelides, Thomas Lovejoy, Katarzyna Nowak, Patrick Roehrdanz, and Mariana M. Vale (2020). Ecology and Economics for Pandemic Prevention. Science, 369(6502): 379-381. DOI: 10.1126/science.abc3189



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