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Preventing the Next Zoonotic Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis was the predictable result of a careless approach to conservation that we have yet to correct. Now that we have witnessed how much economic destruction and human dislocation a single virus can cause, there can be no excuse for further delay.

WASHINGTON, DC – The devastation wrought by COVID-19 underscores the need for measures to minimize the chances of another zoonotic pandemic. That means radically changing how humans interact with wildlife and natural habitats, preserving terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, and overhauling food production. Otherwise, another contagion originating from animals could arrive at any time, compounding the disastrous legacy of COVID-19. Worse, this would feed into a vicious cycle: less money for conservation would lead to even more pressure placed on natural habitats, more human-wildlife contact, and a greater chance of more outbreaks.

Spreading out of a food market in Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as the predictable result of trade or trafficking in wild-animal meat. China’s epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 started the same way. Across East and Southeast Asia, markets selling meat from wild and illegally caught animals – most kept in appalling and dangerously unhygienic conditions – are literal breeding grounds for zoogenic pandemics.

But pandemics can also result from improper husbandry, when domestic livestock are not separated from wild animals, as well as from veterinary failures. These outcomes tend to follow from regulatory deficiencies, which are pervasive around the world, including in the United States. The H1N1 “swine flu” that killed 10,000 people in the United States in 2009 emerged from North American pig herds.