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COMMENTARY

Humans, wildlife and COVID-19: How to prevent future pandemics






Sustainability / COMMENTARY
Stefan Sipka

Date: 20/04/2020

Pandemics like the ongoing COVID-19 are increasingly being linked to human exposure to wildlife. Stefan Šipka provides three clear-cut recommendations for the EU to root out nature-related causes of similar diseases of the future. 



COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the globe. The rapid spread of the disease and its unknown properties are hampering the efforts of governments, medical staff and scientists to overcome the challenge. There are thousands of human casualties, and, tragically, more will succumb. The economy is in disarray, and a global recession is on the horizon. Our social fabric is under severe pressure as people are confined and practice social distancing, either by choice or law.

Clearly, the current focus on treating the sick, slowing down the spread of the COVID-19 and stabilising the economy is a must. However, there is also a need to understand and address the root causes of this crisis to avoid similar pandemics in the future. This is not just a task for tomorrow, but one that should start already today.

Addressing the root causes

One of the highly probable root causes for COVID-19 is the increased interaction between humans and wildlife.[1] The pandemic most likely originated from a wet market in Wuhan, China, where fresh perishable goods, including wildlife, are sold for human consumption.

It was a crisis waiting to happen. The disease is linked to a large family of viruses known as coronaviruses that are transmitted to humans from animals, notably wildlife. Its specific SARS-CoV-2 strain probably passed down to humans from bats via other wild animals.[2] Case in point, COVID-19 is not the first disease to originate from wild fauna. Recent history is full of similar pandemics, such as those caused by the Ebola virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).[3]

Besides consumption, potential viral spillovers can also occur from physical contact with wild animals and their immediate surroundings, wild fauna bites or wildlife infecting livestock and consequently humans.[4] Deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats or biodiversity loss – which in turn can result from urbanisation, intensified agriculture, mining and logging – are bringing humans and wild animals closer together, thereby facilitating viral transmission. The illegal trade of endangered wildlife – like pangolins, which are hunted in Africa and sold as food or medicine in Asian and especially Chinese markets – can be regarded as another major driver of increased human exposure to wildlife.[5]

Acknowledging that interactions between humans and wildlife are increasing, the risk of pandemics remains a serious challenge for the future and requires closer EU’s attention. This is highlighted further by the fact that the power of nature’s deadly arsenal is virtually limitless: there are around 1.7 million unknown viruses in the animal kingdom.[6] Improving and limiting unnecessary interactions between humans and wildlife will, therefore, be essential to prevent new pandemics from occurring.

What can the EU do?

The very fact that diseases like COVID-19 know no borders should be enough incentive for the EU to consider measures that would help prevent the outbreak of similar diseases in the future. For example, the hunting, trading and consumption of wildlife worldwide should be restricted further.

Moreover, the EU’s degradation of nature contributes to increasing interactions between people and wildlife far beyond its own borders. The EU makes up 20% of global GDP,[7] indicating the scales of its demand for products and resources to produce goods. Global resource extraction and processing account for 90% of biodiversity loss.[8] As major producers and consumers, Europeans indirectly contribute to the degradation of nature worldwide.  

It is not only in the EU’s interest, but its responsibility to partner with other countries to address the root causes of pandemics like COVID-19. The EU should consider the following measures within its policy toolbox to achieve these aims:

1.  The EU should use its foreign aid to end the unnecessary hunting and consumption of wildlife, unsanitary wet markets[9] and destruction of natural habitats in developing countries (e.g. equatorial Africa).[10]

Measures should include providing financial support and know-how to improve the livelihoods, education and level of awareness of communities; and strengthening the capacities of law enforcement authorities. Providing foreign aid to eradicate nature-related causes of current and potential pandemics must become an integral part of the EU’s policy towards Africa.

2.   The EU should invest its diplomatic efforts in ensuring all-round respect for international rules on nature protection, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The EU should consider foreign trade agreements (FTAs) specifically as a tool of leverage to protect nature worldwide.

Attaching conditionalities to FTAs should be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis to ensure that they result in both the protection of nature and the implementation of intended trade arrangements. In addition, the EU’s new policies on nature – which are to be outlined in the upcoming Biodiversity Strategy – should include a strong and active role for the EU regarding global biodiversity protection. 

3.   The EU should assess how its demand for products and raw materials contributes to the worldwide deterioration of ecosystems, and reduce its impact to lower human exposure to wildlife. The European Green Deal and new Circular Economy Action Plan rightly suggest that the EU must become more resource-efficient. This must lead to enhanced efforts to decouple EU’s production from material consumption and therefore lower the demand for natural resources.

Regulatory measures and financial incentives should foster new service-based business models; make the design of products more durable, repairable and recyclable; improve ecolabels to change consumer behaviour; and modernise the waste management sector to boost recycling.      

The transmission of viruses from wildlife to humans is a problem that cannot be solved by the EU alone, of course. Other developed and lower-income countries need to be part of the solution too; for example, by restricting the hunting, trading and consumption of wildlife and protecting natural habitats inter alia to minimise unnecessary interface between humans and wild fauna.

China’s recent decision to temporarily ban wildlife trade and the consumption of game is a step in the right direction.[11] Turning this decision into permanent legislation and extending it to other functions (e.g. medicinal use of wildlife) could support the global cause of preventing new deadly pandemics further.[12]

Nonetheless, given the size of the EU’s economy and its role in global politics, the EU has in its reach a significant opportunity to address some of the environmental causes of modern deadly diseases, too. We must become more careful about what we do with and within our environment if we are to avoid similar pandemics in the future. Prevention is better than cure.

 

Stefan Šipka is Policy Analyst of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe’s programme.


The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.



[1] World Health Organization (2020), “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)”, p.34. For additional information, see World Health Organization, “Reducing animal-human transmission of emerging pathogens” (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. For additional cases of viral transmission from animals to humans, see e.g. European Food Safety Authority, “Non-foodborne zoonotic diseases” (accessed on 17 April 2020); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Zoonotic Diseases” (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Specktor, Brandon, “Why scientists are rushing to hunt down 1,7 million unknown viruses”, Live Science, 23 February 2018.

[7] Strandell, Helene and Pascal Wolff (2018, eds.), The EU in the world: 2018 edition, Luxembourg: Eurostat.

[8] Oberle, Bruno; Stefan Bringezu; Steve Hatfield-Dodds; Stefanie Hellweg; Heinz Schandl and Jessica Clement (2019), “Global resources outlook 2019: Natural resources for the future we want”, Nairobi: International Resource Panel, p.5.  

[9] Given that wet markets often satisfy the basic food requirements of Asian and African populations, restrictions should focus on unsanitary wet markets that sell exotic and endangered wildlife. See e.g. Westcott, Ben and Serenitie Wang, “China’s wet markets are not what some people think they are”, CNN, 16 April 2020.     




Photo credits:
Isaac Kasamani / AFP
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