Pedestrians wearing face masks for protection against COVID-19 cross South Quay, Port-of-Spain, last Wednesday.



If measures to prevent the spread of diseases from animals to humans are not implemented by world leaders, pandemics can become the new normal: spreading faster, killing more people and decimating the world economy.

This was the warning of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body made up of United Nations member states to focus on the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem systems.

Trinidad and Tobago has been a member since 2012 when IPBES was formed. Twenty experts selected by governments around the world and the organisation’s Bureau and Multidisciplinary Expert Panel met virtually in late July and their report was released last week.

“Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before,” the report says.

IPBES said current pandemic strategies use a reactive approach—including implementing public health measures and the rapid production of vaccines and treatments. However, IPBES said COVID-19 has taught the world that this approach is too slow and uncertain.

“As the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse and lost livelihoods.”

According to the report, pandemics originate from diverse microbes carried by animals. Humans are only exposed to those microbes by their own activities —the same activities that are destroying the planet and causing climate change.

“These include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification and wildlife trade and consumption. These drivers of change bring wildlife, livestock and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into people and lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban centres and global travel and trade routes.”

The report said the recent rise in consumption and trade are driven by demand in developing countries and emerging economies have led to the emergence of more diseases—mainly from developing countries rich in biodiversity.

IPBES said there are currently 1.7 million undiscovered viruses thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

“Of these, 540,000-850,000 could have the ability to infect humans. The most important reservoirs of pathogens with pandemic potential are mammals (in particular bats, rodents, primates) and some birds (in particular water birds), as well as livestock (eg pigs, camels, poultry).”

The report said there are more than five new diseases emerging annually – any of which can spread and become a pandemic.

But IPBES said to blame animals for virus outbreaks is wrong.

“Unsustainable exploitation of the environment due to land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, wildlife trade and consumption and other drivers, disrupts natural interactions among wildlife and their microbes, increases contact among wildlife, livestock, people and their pathogens and has led to almost all pandemics,” the report said.

IPBES said although both the legal and illegal wildlife trade around the world is worth billions, they are linked to the emergence of diseases.

“The farming, trade and consumption of wildlife and wildlife-derived products (for food, medicine, fur and other products) have led to biodiversity loss and emerging diseases, including SARS and COVID-19.”

The report identifies several key recommendations that it says can help prevent pandemics, including the launching of a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic privation.

It said the council will “provide policy-relevant scientific information on the emergence of diseases, predict high-risk areas, evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics, highlight research gaps; and coordinate the design of a monitoring framework, and possibly lay the groundwork for an agreement on goals and targets to be met by all partners for implementing the One Health approach (i.e. one that links human health, animal health and environmental sectors).”

The goal of creating this council, IPBES said, is for countries to set mutually agreed goals and targets in an accord to have one policy on pandemic prevention that will benefit humans, animals and ecosystems.

The report said the reactive approach that was used to respond to COVID-19 was inadequate and people in all sectors of society have been focusing on moving past the ‘business-as-usual’ model.

“To do this will require transformative change, using the evidence from science to re-assess the relationship between people and nature, and to reduce global environmental changes that are caused by unsustainable consumption, and which drive biodiversity loss, climate change and pandemic emergence.”