The huge hole in Biden’s pandemic prevention plan
When it comes to pandemics, an ounce of prevention is indisputably worth a pound of cure. In July of last year, a group of leading conservation scientists concluded that for just $22 billion to $31 billion per year the world could curtail the destruction of the natural world and reckless exploitation of wildlife — the likely root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While $31 billion might seem like a lot, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the many trillions spent to mitigate and redress the global economic damage caused by COVID-19 over the past year, not to mention the massive loss of life.
In his recently released American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden proposed $30 billion in funding to protect Americans from future pandemics through new investments in medical countermeasures, biosecurity and research and development.
These measures include increasing the national stockpile of medical supplies and speeding vaccine development to combat the next pandemic outbreak we know is coming. These are no doubt important steps, but all of these measures are purely reactive — they will not prevent the next pandemic or future biological catastrophes. The horse will, once again, have already left the barn.
In recent decades, every major new disease outbreak — from SARS, Ebola and HIV to COVID-19 — has been zoonotic in origin. Each of these diseases arose because of human exploitation of wildlife or nature. Ebola, for example, spilled over to people after humans entered pristine habitat and exploited primates.
The more contact humans have with wildlife, the greater the risk. At least 1.7 million undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammals and birds alone, and we have no ability to predict which one will cause the next global pandemic.
All these novel outbreaks stemming from the exploitation of nature have had massive impacts on society because humans have no natural immunity to these new diseases. And while new technologies such as mRNA vaccines hold enormous promise, we do not know, nor can scientists guarantee, that they will always prove effective against the next novel zoonotic disease that jumps to people as we continue to exploit wildlife and nature.
We do know, however, that zoonotic diseases from wildlife will emerge at a growing rate as the destruction of the world’s last natural habitats continues to accelerate. The United States undeniably plays a role in disease emergence by consuming 20 percent of the global wildlife trade. If we do not transform our relationship with the natural world, we can only wonder when, not if, the next pandemic will occur.
Tropical forest edges offer jumping-off points for novel disease emergence. The Nipah virus is a case in point. This deadly virus spilled over to humans as people converted pristine bat habitat for domesticated animals and agriculture.
To reduce these types of risks, scientists have recommended a buyout to avert tropical deforestation. By decreasing 7 percent of deforestation to the tune of roughly $9.6 billion in regions with the highest risk of virus spillover, we could achieve an estimated 40 percent reduction in spillover risk.
That’s the kind of habitat-protecting action missing from the president’s pandemic prevention plan.
Biden’s new plan may put the United States in a somewhat enhanced position to better protect its citizens by shortening the timelines of vaccine development. But in an interconnected global economy, this will not prevent the massive economic shocks from the next global pandemic, or the global loss of life that will still occur in the interim.
Investing resources in protecting natural habitat both at home and abroad is not necessarily “shovel-ready” infrastructure and may not fit into a domestic infrastructure proposal. But if Biden sincerely wants to demonstrate that his administration is concerned about stopping the next pandemic before it occurs, then his budget must also invest in taking a bold, precautionary action to address the degradation of nature.
We should, as Biden has repeatedly said, listen to the scientists when making policy decisions. He should do so here and propose billions to combat environmental degradation, habitat loss and wildlife exploitation at home and around the world.
That investment, not his infrastructure plan, is our best bet to averting the next pandemic. Otherwise, the next global pandemic is almost inevitable and will still cost us dearly no matter how we prepare for it.
Brett Hartl is the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.