Opinion | Energy & Environment

COVID-19 anniversary: Here's how Biden and Congress can prevent zoonotics

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One year ago, half a world away, someone got too close to a wild animal. In that moment, whether at a live wildlife market in Wuhan, China or some other location, that someone became the first person to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

We may never know exactly who that person was or exactly how COVID-19 jumped from a wild animal (likely a bat but also possibly a pangolin or some other species) to people. What we do know is that our unsustainable exploitation of the natural world caused the current pandemic. 

In this past year, several nations have taken initial steps towards reducing the risk of future pandemics. Both Vietnam and Bolivia have acted at the national level to curtail wildlife exploitation. China has implemented measures restricting live wildlife markets and some wildlife consumption and trade with loopholes.

Yet other major wildlife-consuming countries - the United States, the European Union and Japan - have failed to act.

The U.S. is "one of the largest legal importers of wildlife with 10 to 20 million individual wild animals (terrestrial and marine) imported each year," according to a recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report.

But the U.S. has done nothing to address the root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to act as if our reckless exploitation of nature is not an urgent problem, despite our significant demand for natural resources and the pandemic's enormous toll.

Over the past 40 years, the worst infectious disease outbreaks were all zoonotic - meaning they jumped from animals to people. As we continue to degrade habitats and push more species towards extinction, we are exposing ourselves to more novel diseases such as HIV, Ebola and SARS for which we have no natural immunity.

Indeed, scientists warn that the rate of zoonotic disease outbreaks is rising exponentially and that we are now encountering a new disease from wildlife every six to eight months. Not every disease spreads as readily or is as lethal as COVID-19, but we're playing Russian Roulette if we continue with business as usual. 

As a first step, Congress should pass the Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020, a bipartisan bill in the House and Senate that would end live wildlife markets here in the U.S. and stop the import and export of live wildlife destined for such markets. The legislation would encourage a global diplomatic effort to shut down live wildlife markets and provide significant funding to conserve nature and address the illegal trade in wildlife. 

But this is just a start. Beyond empowering an advisory board of leading scientists to begin getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control, we must also look toward the horizon and reduce the risk of the next pandemic. This requires transformative change. The current "detect and respond" approach to disease emergence has failed repeatedly in our global society, where a disease can spread halfway around the world before it even incubates.

President-elect Biden should establish a high-level task force to create and implement a green pandemic response that includes: curtailing habitat loss and destruction; limiting exploitation of wildlife and livestock; transitioning livelihoods (including from exploitation to surveillance); and addressing climate change's compounding risks to disease emergence. Both national and international protections are necessary.

According to scientists, we can reduce the risk of another pandemic by investing $22 to $31 billion to monitor disease emergence, reduce spillover of zoonotic pathogens and curtail habitat loss and wildlife demand around the world.

Compare that to the price of the current pandemic, estimated to have cost $8 to $16 trillion globally as of July 2020. The U.S. alone is predicted to lose $16 trillion by the fourth quarter of 2021. And that's just COVID-19 losses - it doesn't include the costs of responding to any other infectious diseases.

We have long known the risks of destroying ecosystems and exploiting wildlife and animals. We know these practices need to change to stop pandemics from occurring. Yet we've chosen not to act. Instead we're forced to react, and that has cost more than a million lives around the world and tens of trillions to our economy.

In the next year, as a vaccine hopefully begins to help control the current pandemic, we need a green response that transforms the future to prevent the next outbreak. We can't let this tragedy happen again.

Tanya Sanerib is the legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity's International Program. Follow the organization on Twitter @CenterForBioDiv.

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