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China Daily Global / 2020-07 / 31 / Page004

Spending on environment may prevent pandemics

By CAO CHEN in Shanghai | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-31 00:00

An investment of $22 billion per year worldwide to curb wildlife trafficking and tropical deforestation may help governments prevent pandemics passed from animals to humans, according to an international team of scientists and economists.

The annual investment would include spending $250 million to $750 million to expand and enhance wildlife-trade monitoring programs and technologies, and $217 million to $279 million on early detection and control, according to the peer-reviewed analysis entitled Ecology and Economics for Pandemic Prevention, published in the academic journal Science.

The team was led by scientists at Princeton and Duke universities in the United States and included environmental, medical and conservation practitioners and economists from 14 institutions or nonprofit organizations.

Compared to the $2.6 trillion already lost to COVID-19 globally and the over 600,000 deaths the virus has caused so far, that annual investment represents an exceptional value, the experts argued.

To justify the costs of prevention, a year's worth of these preventive strategies would only need to reduce the likelihood of another pandemic like COVID-19 in the next year by about 27 percent, the paper said.

"We expect to reassess the relation between humans and the ecosystem, and examine whether preventive measures on ecological protection can help reduce human health risks," said Li Binbin, the only Chinese researcher in the analysis and assistant professor at the Environmental Research Center at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province.

According to Li, the analysis is based on existing studies, calculating the possible cost of COVID-19 across the globe and comparing it with expenditures on preventive measures.

"The quantitative study will show both policy makers and the public that prevention can be effective," Li said.

"Further discussion may be necessary to determine each country's role in the move, which requires international cooperation."

In the paper, the experts noted that viruses like COVID-19 and HIV that have spread from animal hosts to humans over the last century have been linked to close contact between people and wildlife, including live primates and bats.

Animals have infected humans directly in some cases, while in others, the route of infection has been indirect through livestock humans ate.

The paper pointed out that locations near the edges of tropical forests where more than 25 percent of the original forest has been lost tend to be hotbeds for these animal-to-human virus transmissions.

"Human activities like land use changes and infrastructure construction are some of the main reasons behind a decline in biodiversity, and when wild animals' original forest habitats are encroached and disturbed, they are more likely to interact with humans," Li said.

This has been a key factor in the emergence of viral outbreaks in West Africa, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Australia, said Andrew Dobson, one of the authors of the paper and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.

Wildlife markets and the legal and illegal trade of wildlife for pets, meat or medicine add to these risks by bringing humans into close-and often poorly regulated-contact with animals that may carry a virus, said Stuart Pimm, one of the authors of the paper with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

"Surprise, wild animals can harbor a lot of nasty things," Pimm said. "The good news is, by investing ...we could stop future pandemics before they start and substantially reduce the odds of having something like COVID-19 happen again."

Li said China has endeavored to maintain the ecosystem and conserve wildlife in past decades.

The Law of Wild Animal Protection took effect in China in 1988 and a national pilot program to return grain plots to forest land started in 1999.

Recent years have also seen the country uphold the concept that clear waters and green mountains are valuable assets.

In addition, the country has enhanced regulations on wildlife protection by cracking down on illegal trading or eating wildlife during the novel coronavirus and proposed last month to upgrade 55 species of wild animals to top-level protection status.

"More effort may be needed to supervise the enforcement of the policies," Li said.



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