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4th Jul 2022

Potential for future pandemics? 'Extremely high,' MEPs told

  • Almost all modern-time pandemics are caused by zoonoses, an infectious disease that jumps from animals or insects to humans. These include Covid-19, HIV, Ebola, Zika, SARS and avian flu (Photo: Kol Tregaskes)

Biodiversity loss and climate change have exacerbated both the risk and incidence of non-human crossover diseases - but experts consider that escaping "the era of pandemics" is still possible.

Almost all modern-time pandemics are caused by zoonoses, an infectious disease that jumps from animals or insects to humans. These include Covid-19, HIV, Ebola, Zika, SARS and avian flu.

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However, it is estimated that there are about 1.7 million undiscovered viruses circulating currently in mammals and birds - of which up to 850,000 could end up infecting people.

"The potential for future pandemics is extremely high," the chair of the report on pandemics by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Peter Daszak, told MEPs on the environment committee on Thursday (14 January).

"But what is clear is that our business-as-usual approach does not work," he also said, adding that "this is a clear issue for the future that we can deal with now".

The intensification of agriculture, changes in land use, unsustainable trade, production and consumption habits as well as the increased contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people are considered the main drivers of zoonotic diseases.

That is why escaping this era of pandemics will require "a major shift from reaction to prevention," acting on the drivers of pandemics before viruses emerge from nature and spill over to humans, said fellow IPBES's executive secretary Anne Larigauderie .

The strong correlation between the continuous deterioration of ecosystems and the intervals at which pandemics or epidemics occur should be "more than a serious warning" to trigger a holistic change, said the chief of the European Environment Agency, Hans Bruyninckx.

"[But] even in Europe, [where] we have policies for decades, we see a general decline of species and habitats and the overall quality of biodiversity and ecosystems," he warned.

A recent report revealed that 81 percent of the habitats in Europe are in a bad or poor conservation state - which has renewed calls to restore damaged ecosystems across the bloc.

Homo Sapiens next?

The main causes of biodiversity loss within the bloc are agricultural practices, landscape fragmentation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change - which has become a key factor in the decline of species and habitats.

According to Bruyninckx, understanding that "natural capital as a foundation capital for society has finally reached the highest level of policy-making and economic reasoning".

"By now, there is a lot of political and financial capital invested in climate change, [but] making that same connection to biodiversity will be critical - not only to protect biodiversity [itself] but also to protect our human existence and health," he said.

"If there are currently one million species on the way out in the 'sixth mass extinction', the real question is whether homo sapiens may be part of the next wave of extinction," he warned.

The commission is expected to develop legally-binding EU nature restoration targets before the end of the year - as part of the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy presented last year.

However, Sabien Leemans from the World Wildlife Fund told MEPs that failing to set spending targets for biodiversity in member states' recovery plans is already a "missed opportunity".

Globally, annual financial support potentially harmful for biodiversity is estimated at over €413bn - six times higher than total annual finances spent on biodiversity (approximately €70bn).

'One Health' solution?

The idea that the lack of diversity of pieces has an impact on the transmission of zoonotic diseases is certainly not new, but the current pandemic has served, to some extent, as a wake-up call for many.

At the fourth edition of the One Planet Summit on Monday, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU will invest several hundred million euros over the next four years for the research of biodiversity, animal health and emerging diseases.

"Just as we cooperate for our 'One Planet,' we need to work together for our 'One Health.' This is why we will prioritise research on 'One Health' across Horizon Europe," said von der Leyen.

The 'One Health' solution, a collaborative approach between medical, veterinary, forestry and conservation communities, recognises that human well-being is closely connected to the health of the environment and wildlife.

Meanwhile, MEP Pascal Canfin announced his support for the nomination of the IPBES for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

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