The World of International Organizations

IPBES ties pandemic risks to nature crisis

A heavily polluted portion of the Tietê River in São Paulo, Brazil (AN/Diego Torres Silvestre)

Pandemics will become more frequent, faster spreading and deadlier than COVID-19 if people do not restore Earth’s natural life support systems, the 132-nation IPBES organization reported on Thursday.

Experts convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, warned that global health crises are strongly linked to the degradation of nature: though they originate in microbes carried by animals, pandemics emerge from human activities.

IPBES experts held a virtual workshop with 22 leading experts from around the world in late July before issuing a 96-page report with recommendations that looks at evidence of links between pandemic risk and the state of the natural world since the COVID pandemic began. Governments and organizations nominated 17 of the experts; the other five were added by IPBES for their work on nature crises.

The report draws on research from experts in epidemiology, zoology, public health, disease ecology, comparative pathology, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, wildlife health, mathematical modeling, economics, law and public policy. It advises that future pandemic risks can be lessened through more responsible use of natural resources, conservation of protected areas and preservation of biodiversity.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic — or of any modern pandemic,” British zoologist Peter Daszak, who chaired the IPBES workshop, said in a statement.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment,” said Daszak, president of U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, which researches global health, conservation and international development.

Some 24 percent of wild terrestrial vertebrate species are traded globally, and the US$107 billion a year legal international wildlife trade has grown by 500 percent since 2005, and by 2,000 percent since the 1980s, according to IPBES. Meantime, illegal wildlife trade now approaches US$23 billion a year.

About 30 percent of all emerging infectious diseases have been attributed to land use changes, agricultural expansion and urbanization, it said, while 75 percent of approved antimicrobial drugs come from natural or naturally derived compounds.

IPBES, based in Bonn, Germany, is an independent, intergovernmental body set up in 2012 by 94 governments. It has since grown under the stewardship of four United Nations agencies: U.N. Environment, UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and U.N. Development Program.

‘The path to pandemics’

Since the coronavirus was first reported in China in late December, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic — the worldwide spread of a new disease —  on March 11, marking the first time a coronavirus gained that distinction.

This year’s global health crisis — which has infected 46 million people and killed almost 1.2 million worldwide so far — is the sixth pandemic since  the “Spanish flu,” also caused by H1N1 virus, that is estimated to have caused up to 50 million deaths worldwide from 1918 to 1919, according to IPBES.

Now, an estimated 1.7 million “undiscovered” viruses exist in mammals and birds, IPBES reported, including somewhere between 540,000 and 850,000 that could infect people.

Some 70 percent of emerging diseases such as Ebola, Zika and HIV/AIDS are zoonotic — caused by germs that spread among animals before they jump to people. The report cautioned that each year about five new diseases break out among people that could potentially lead to a pandemic.

“Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people,” Daszak said. “This is the path to pandemics.”

In May 2019, IPBES reported that human actions are causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a breaking point, threatening as many as 1 million plant and animal species with extinction in a challenge as colossal as the climate crisis.

It said devastating human negligence has caused a dire nature emergency for plants and animals large and small. That report was based on the work of 145 wildlife experts from 50 countries over three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors.

More than a half million species on land are threatened by extinction due to “insufficient habitat for long-term survival,” it said, and marine life is similarly imperiled. IPBES said it hoped to galvanize global agreement for emergency action similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on the climate crisis.

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