A New International Pandemic Treaty Must Include Prevention at Source
By Chris Walzer, Susan Lieberman & Arnaud Goessens | Nov 26, 2021
This week, the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, will discuss a potential international pandemic treaty. Pandemic preparedness is critical, but governments must also ensure that this agreement addresses prevention at source. Actions must be agreed to significantly reduce the risk of pathogen spillover from animals to humans well before they become local outbreaks, epidemics, or global pandemics.
On March 30, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 26 Heads of State; the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; and President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for the development of an international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness. They recognized that the devastating ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic clearly demand immediate re-examination of our damaged and destructive relationship with nature.
For many, the devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic came as no surprise. For decades, researchers have highlighted the risk of animal to human — or zoonotic — transmission of pathogens. Medical and other disciplines, based on knowledge from related disease outbreaks such as Ebola Virus Disease and SARS, repeatedly warned governments of the tremendous health, societal, and economic impacts from the next viral spillover triggering a pandemic.
Yet, we failed to heed the warnings, to take a precautionary approach to avert this devastating global crisis, and to consider long-term costs of inaction rather than short-term economic gains.
Governments and multilateral agencies must break down their sectoral silos, rethink economic policies, and collaborate around the common goal of preventing future pandemics. A critical first step is the recognition of the intrinsic links between human, animal, and plant health, and the foundational importance of an intact and functioning environment for our health and wellbeing.
As the World Health Assembly considers a potential international pandemic treaty, governments must ensure that this agreement addresses prevention at source.
A fully integrated trans-sectoral “One Health” approach will provide the necessary framework for recovery from COVID-19 while generating co-benefits across a globalized world pommeled by climate change, biodiversity loss, and social injustice. A new international treaty can help catalyze this change.
The science is clear. Our health and well-being and that of the planet are one and the same. Zoonoses account for the vast majority of emerging infectious diseases. We must protect ecosystems with high ecological integrity and function. We must stop encroaching on nature and reduce points of contact with wildlife to significantly reduce the risk of pathogen spillover from wildlife to humans and their livestock.
The commercial trade and sale of live wildlife for human consumption — both legal and illegal, particularly birds and mammals — constitute another significant risk. This trade and associated markets bring together domesticated and wild animals with their pathogens, facilitating cross-species transmission.
This April, the WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called on governments to suspend the trade in live caught wild mammals for food and breeding. As an emergency measure, they strongly recommended immediately closing sections of food markets selling wild animals. That must happen now.
By protecting nature and conserving existing intact ecosystems, we maintain natural barriers between humans and pathogens of zoonotic origin.
While gaps in our knowledge exist, there is no doubt that there are several hundred thousand yet undiscovered viruses in wildlife that can potentially infect humans. Recent research suggests that zoonotic disease outbreaks will continue to increase substantially in number and scope in the coming decades. We clearly cannot return to business-as-usual. We need to rethink how we treat and deal with wildlife. There is no alternative.
The recent pledge made by 100 world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030 is a welcome step. But talk is cheap. Only concrete actions with real outcomes matter. In the face of global destruction, governments must finally respond and deliver.
By protecting nature and conserving existing intact ecosystems, particularly forests, we can maintain natural barriers between humans and pathogens of zoonotic origin. We will thus also protect global biodiversity, combat climate change by securing nature-based carbon sinks, and address the needs and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities who depend on nature.
The math is straightforward. The costs of protecting nature, and stopping these wildlife markets, are a drop in the bucket when compared to the cost of dealing with another pandemic that wreaks havoc on lives, health, economies, and societies on a global scale.
As governments now prepare for the special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) on the development of an international pandemic agreement, they must discuss and the treaty must address preventing the next pandemic at the source, and not only public health preparedness.
The commercial trade and sale of live wildlife for human consumption — both legal and illegal, particularly birds and mammals — constitute another significant risk.
Being better prepared for the next pandemic with adequate health care access, vaccines, and essential equipment is vital. But we must never confuse preparedness with prevention. The best and most cost-effective approach to pandemics is avoiding pathogen spillover to humans in the first place — including a new multilateral agreement to do so.
An ounce of prevention is really worth a pound of cure. It is past time for governments across the world to show leadership, shift paradigms, and take the necessary steps to reduce risks of future outbreaks.
Another failure could be our last.
Chris Walzer is Executive Director for Health at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society); Susan Lieberman is VP for International Policy at WCS; Arnaud Goessens is Senior Manager for EU Policy, WCS EU, a European affiliate of WCS.