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Harvard Launches International Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source

05/20/2021 | Harvard Chan C-CHANGE

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As world races to prevent the next pandemic, experts urge the adoption of policies and investments that address the root of disease spread 

Media contact: Anna Miller, amiller@hsph.harvard.edu

BOSTON – As the World Health Organization prepares to host the World Health Assembly, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) have convened a group of experts from around the world to identify the most effective ways to prevent new infectious diseases like COVID-19 before they start. In doing so, the group hopes to elevate the overlooked link between planetary and public health – the spillover of pathogens from animals into people. 

“Every conversation about preparing for the next pandemic must include how to prevent it at its source,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and the leader of the Scientific Task Force for Preventing Pandemics at the Source. “The current narrative on pandemic prevention is heavily weighted towards health system preparedness, containment, and vaccinations. This presumes the best we can do is prevent a disease from spreading once it emerges, but the evidence shows that our best forms of prevention stop these viruses from spilling into humans in the first place.”

Previous research by Dr. Bernstein and colleagues found that the costs of preventing the next pandemic—by preventing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade—are as little as $22 billion a year, 2% of the economic and mortality costs of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, pandemic prevention actions such as reducing deforestation help to combat climate change and can save lives from infections.

The task force will additionally identify critical gaps in our knowledge of how diseases spillover from animals to humans, including identifying spillover risks like deforestation, wildlife trade, and animal husbandry, cataloging interventions that may prevent disease emergence. 

Led by Dr. Bernstein, the task force members are scientific experts representing the world’s major geographic areas. Members are contributing to the task force as individuals and do not represent the views of their institutions:

  • Dr. Wande Alimi, Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and One Health Program Coordinator at Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Africa Union 
  • Dr. Jonathan Epstein, Vice President for Science and Outreach, EcoHealth Alliance
  • Dr. Marcos Espinal, Director of Communicable Diseases and Environmental Determinants of Health, Pan American Health Organization
  • Dr. Manish Kakkar, Senior Public Health Specialist, New Delhi, India
  • Dr. Deborah Kochevar, Professor, Biomedical Sciences and Dean Emerita Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Senior Fellow, The Fletcher School at Tufts University
  • Dr. Guilherme Werneck, Professor of Epidemiology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro

In advance of the G20 Summit in October and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November, when global leaders will convene to discuss how to address the climate crisis and prepare for the next pandemic, the task force’s findings will be translated into international policy recommendations by a group of high-level policymakers and government officials, also hosted by Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and HGHI. Their recommendations can be used to inform discussions about how global leaders can not only contain the next pandemic, but prevent it from emerging in the first place.

“COVID-19 was a warning shot from the whole of nature to our species,” said Dr. Bernstein. “We need more precise and effective interventions to prevent spillover, and to get there, we need greater investment in science and actions that prevent disease emergence. What we’ve learned is that our salvation comes cheap. The costs of these actions are a fraction of the cost of managing a pandemic once it emerges. This task force will develop the evidence base we need to support these investments.”  

About Harvard Chan C-CHANGE

The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) increases public awareness of the health impacts of climate change and uses science to make it personal, actionable, and urgent. Led by Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the Center leverages Harvard’s cutting-edge research to inform policies, technologies, and products that reduce air pollution and other causes of climate change. By making climate change personal, highlighting solutions, and emphasizing the important role we all play in driving change, Harvard Chan C-CHANGE puts health outcomes at the center of climate actions. To learn more visit https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/

About Harvard Global Health Institute

The Harvard Global Health Institute is committed to surfacing and addressing some of the most persistent challenges in human health. We believe that the solutions to these problems will be drawn from within and beyond the medicine and public health spheres to encompass design, law, policy, business, and other fields. At HGHI, we harness the unique breadth of excellence within Harvard and are a dedicated partner to organizations, governments, scholars, and committed citizens around the globe. We convene diverse perspectives, identify gaps, design new learning opportunities, and advise policy makers to advance health equity for all. You can learn more at globalhealth.harvard.edu 

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Headshot of Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Credit Michael Goderre/Boston Children’s Hospital

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.

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