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Beyond boundaries: Why nature matters when it comes to pandemics

WWF’s international science team conducted a review of scientific and government literature to find out where and how nature and zoonotic pathogen pathways intersect.

‘Zoonosis’ is a disease that passes from an animal or insect to a human. Pandemics like the one we are experiencing now result from novel infectious zoonotic diseases for which humans have no immunity.
Covid-19 is just one of these, and while this disease is extremely disruptive and highly contagious, it is not as deadly as some other recent zoonotic diseases such as Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
This literature review found that there are three critical enabling conditions that are causing an increase in these pathogen spill-over events from animals to humans:
• Land-use change which results in the loss and degradation of nature
• Intensification and expansion of agriculture and animal production to meet increasing demand for animal protein worldwide, and
• Exploitation of wildlife including the sale and consumption of high-risk live wild animals
These human-induced enabling conditions reduce the natural protective barrier that should exist between nature and people. Each of these direct drivers thus increases the proximity and intensity of interaction between live wild animals, live domestic animals and humans which increases the probability of zoonosis.
And since the pathogens that cause these diseases, particularly viruses, are constantly mutating, the increased frequency of human and animal interactions creates a dangerous situation. For a pathogen or virus, it means that a convenient human host is more likely to be present when a mutation that enables zoonosis occurs. The result is that the pathogen can spread and thrive in humans.
WWF is not an organisation that is expert in the study of disease but we do understand nature. You’ll note that these drivers have significant overlap with the drivers of biodiversity loss. If we end the trade in live wild animals, stop the incursion into tropical forests and degradation of forests and other natural habitats, and effectively regulate the farming, transport, sale and use of live animals, both wild and domestic, we can significantly decrease the risk and virulence of another pandemic.
The research also found that all of these drivers for zoonotic disease are intensifying.
The coronavirus has been and will continue to be horribly disruptive but it is also a really urgent opportunity to change our relationship with nature.
So what is to be done? Firstly it’s not enough to take only a health or economic lens on the issue, we have to include our impact on nature in our solutions. By acting fast and working with governments, business, individuals we can reduce the probability and severity of the emergence of these diseases, particularly those that can spill over to humans from animals and cause pandemics such as the one we are currently experiencing.
You can learn more about the link between zoonotic diseases and nature by reading this WWF report or watching the recent webinar with WWF chief scientist Rebecca Shaw.

The boundary where the Mau forest ends and becomes agricultural land near Bomet in Narok, Kenya. Clearing of forests for agricultural use is an identified risk factor for the spread of zoonotic diseases.

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