Stopping ‘spillover’ events key to preventing future pandemics

photo of a cleared forest
Pixabay user Kathas_Fotos

Substantial investments are needed to reduce the likelihood of pathogens spilling from wildlife to humans and triggering the next pandemic, according to a new report from the International Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, which was convened by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and the Harvard Global Health Institute.

The report pinpointed several sources from which pandemic pathogens are likely to spill over into human populations, including livestock operations and wildlife hunting and trade operations. The report also highlighted deforestation, rapid expansion of agricultural lands, and unplanned urbanization as forces that could contribute to a spillover event, as these practices tend to push humans and wildlife into closer contact.

An August 18, 2021, Axios article noted that approximately 50% of emerging infectious diseases identified in the last 50 years originated in wildlife, including HIV, SARS, and Zika.

“To manage COVID-19, we have already spent more than $6 trillion dollars on what may turn out to be the most expensive band-aids ever bought, and no matter how much we spend on vaccines, they can never fully inoculate us from future pandemics,” Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and chair of the International Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, said in a press release. “We must take actions that prevent pandemics from starting by stopping the spillover of diseases from animals to humans. When we do, we can also help stabilize the planet’s climate and revitalize its biosphere, each of which is essential to our health and economic welfare.”

The report highlighted several investment priorities to pursue, including efforts to conserve tropical forests and protect livestock and farmed wild animals from disease. The report also recommended the creation of an intergovernmental partnership to address spillover risk.

In an August 18, 2021, Medium article, Bernstein explained that investing in spillover prevention, especially efforts to slow deforestation and conserve tropical forests, could simultaneously help fight climate change and further protect human health.

Additionally, the report established a set of research priorities for scientists to pursue, including determining which interventions—including those focused on forest conservation, wildlife hunting and trade, and biosecurity around farms—are most effective at spillover prevention. The researchers said it is also important to improve and refine our understanding of where pandemics are likely to emerge and to continue efforts aimed at discovering new pathogens among wildlife in order to ascertain the breadth of the risk.

Read the report summary: Protecting forests and changing agricultural practices are essential, cost-effective actions to prevent pandemics

Read the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE press release: New Report from Harvard and Global Experts Shows Investments in Nature Needed to Stop the Next Pandemic

Read the Axios article: New report calls for preventing human pandemics at the animal source

Read the Medium article: How to Prevent another Pandemic and Save our Planet