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By Amy Edwards 18 February 2020 5 min read

Picture of elderly women with walking frames and masks and gloves on. The women are grocery shopping in Richmond, Virginia. April 2020. Image by Ronnie Pitman/Flickr
Grocery shopping in Richmond, Virginia. April 2020. Image by Ronnie Pitman/Flickr ©  4304 FAUQUIER AVE RICHMOND VA

As the world braces for further cases of novel coronavirus, leading biodiversity, health and agriculture experts have come together with the clear goal that ‘prevention is always better than cure’.

Scientists from the different disciplines within CSIRO, the American-based EcoHealth Alliance, and Sapienza University of Rome in Italy are embarking on new territory where they are encouraging governments and communities world-wide to recognise and address the interactions between environmental change and infectious disease emergence.

This research is outlined in a paper titled Sustainable development must account for pandemic risk, which has been published in the PNAS scientific journal.

The research is focused on preventing the emergence of completely new animal-borne or ‘zoonotic’ diseases, which are transmitted from wild animals to humans, often with a domestic species being the intermediate host.

“Only in the last few years people have become aware of the link between the geographic origin of new zoonotic diseases and the disruption of habitats in areas of high biological diversity,” lead author of the PNAS article and former CSIRO research scientist Dr Moreno Di Marco said.

“Integrated research to address this problem must be prioritised now if we want to prevent, rather than react to, the next dramatic consequence for humanity.”

CSIRO chief research scientist and international biodiversity expert Dr Simon Ferrier observed that biodiversity researchers have long identified and promoted the need to keep biodiversity hotspots intact from a conservation perspective, but this is a different angle altogether.

“This research appeals to a fundamental human imperative to protect ourselves from wildlife-borne diseases and the risk of whole new diseases emerging. Who could argue against that?,” Dr Ferrier said.

While technologies to monitor emerging infectious disease (EID) risk are advancing rapidly, policies to deal with such risk are largely reactive rather than preventive. They focus on outbreak investigation and control, and on development of vaccines and therapeutic drugs targeting known pathogens.

Environmental policies that promote sustainable land-use planning, reduced deforestation, and biodiversity protection, provide ancillary benefits by reducing the types of wildlife contact that can lead to diseases emerging. Pictured are Mountains in the Philippines displaying a patchwork of primary rainforest, secondary forest, paddy fields and heavily logged slopes. Image by Juan Vilata, Shutterstock

What is causing these zoonotic diseases?

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is the latest in a series of diseases transmitted to humans from wild animals in recent years. Fellow diseases including Ebola, SARS, Zika and MERS have also terrorised countries around the world. Around 70 per cent of EIDs, and almost all recent pandemics, originate in animals (the majority in wildlife), and their emergence stems from complex interactions among wild and/or domestic animals and humans.

Professor Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance and co-author of the PNAS article said recent emergences of infectious diseases, including the coronavirus outbreak, were driven by high human population density, environmental changes such as deforestation, intensification of livestock production, and increased hunting and trading of wildlife.

Initial human infections of the new strain of coronavirus were acquired from exposure to animals at a live animal market in Wuhan, China. On 20 January, Chinese authorities confirmed the novel coronavirus was spreading from person-to-person.The current outbreak has caused more than 1700 confirmed deaths with the vast majority of infections and deaths in China. The virus has spread to many countries including Southeast Asia, the USA, Europe, and Australia.

How do we prevent these diseases emerging?

Lead author Dr Moreno Di Marco, who is now based at Sapienza University of Rome, said too little attention had been paid to the interactions between environmental change and infectious disease emergence, despite growing scientific evidence that causally links these two phenomena.

“Efforts to reduce pandemic risk involve trade-offs with other societal goals, such as food and energy production, which ultimately rely on the same environmental resources. Those links cannot be ignored,” he said.

Dr Di Marco believes the current lack of focus on these interactions generates policy blind spots that must be addressed to ensure sustainable development efforts are not counterproductive and do not compromise global health security.

Veterinarian Hasan Alkaf, takes samples from a camel during the first reported (Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) case in Haramout, Yemen in April 2014. Image, Flickr.

Changing the way we do things when it comes to development in high risk countries

The research by Dr Di Marco and colleagues claims that without addressing the disease emergence consequences of environmental change, countries’ abilities to achieve Sustained Development Goals and Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) will be compromised.

Dr Mario Herrero, another CSIRO chief research scientist, said research on the interaction between sustainable development goals has typically focused on a small number of well-established links, for example between food production and biodiversity conservation, or food production and carbon emissions. “These works ignore the role that pandemic risk plays in human health,” he said.

For example, cropland is projected to expand with increasing food demand, particularly in developing countries with high biodiversity and Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) risk.

Environmental policies that promote sustainable land-use planning, reduced deforestation, and biodiversity protection, provide ancillary benefits by reducing the types of wildlife contact that can lead to disease emergence.

Tropical regions have more extensive areas of predicted EID occurrence.

Northern Australia is at increased risk of infectious diseases found in South East Asia because of its close proximity to Asia, potentially providing a gateway to the rest of Australia.

Australia's susceptibility is also increased because of global mobility, growing trade, increased urbanisation leading to human encroachment into wildlife habitats, expanding agricultural development including the rise of peri-urban farming, as well as environmental and land use changes.

The best minds are now working together to prevent infectious disease outbreaks

Currently, 65 countries including Australia are engaged in the Global Health Security Agenda and are finalising a strategic plan to better prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

CSIRO and the EcoHealth Alliance have also formed a partnership to advance global prediction of disease emergence risk.

The partnership combines world-leading capability in biodiversity modelling, disease surveillance, livestock system modelling and builds on decades of applied research and disease risk.

“We’ve each been separately studying biodiversity, disease emergence, and agricultural production for decades but the idea of all these different disciplines joining forces is new ground for us,” Dr Ferrier said.

“We’ve now got these different disciplines talking to each other to help inform achievement of positive outcomes globally in terms of achieving sustainable development goals.”

The partnership’s goals include identifying areas at higher risk of zoonotic disease emergence, having adequate surveillance programs in these areas and mitigating risk through management strategies such as education and vaccination. And overall, the disease risk must then be taken into account when considering sustainable development.

Dr Di Marco concludes that we must ensure that pandemic risk mitigation becomes an integral part of sustainable socio-economic planning.

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