Is it Possible to Pandemic Proof Our World?
Are we willing to do and spend what’s necessary to prevent another pandemic? From the data I’ve seen, it seems like the cost of critical preventive activities is far less than the costs we’ve already incurred, and will continue to incur, since COVID-19 has reached pandemic status.
Viruses vs. Pandemics
It’s important to differentiate between preventing viruses and preventing pandemics. Webster defines a pandemic as an “outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”
So, when the first cases of this latest virus were reported in China was it a pandemic? No, this was simply another new virus that had made its way from wild mammals to the human race.
In the following weeks, though, the COVID-19 virus wasn’t contained. And as it spread to other cities, regions, and continents, with a rising number of fatalities, COVID-19 crossed that admittedly fuzzy threshold to the point where it could legitimately be considered a “pandemic.”
There are hundreds of species of bats and they continue to carry a wide variety of constantly evolving coronavirus variants. Some of the viruses prove to be relatively harmless when passed to humans. Others are incredibly contagious and deadly.
Nipah, HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and now SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) … it’s very likely that each of these was caused initially by animal-to-human contact. Unusually it stems from bats but sometimes other animals, such as pigs or camels serve as a middle mammal in the exchange.
To minimize the emergence of another new and deadly virus that can lead to pandemics, we, and this is a global “we” – including governments at the highest and lowest levels, can create systems to minimize the instances of these exchanges by:
- Eliminating the wildlife markets that exist in some countries and cultures
- Not only reducing deforestation, but increasing forestation to restore buffer zones between the habitats of wild animals and domestic livestock
Think what you will about the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other regional or global collectives of national, sovereign governments, but these kinds of collectives are exactly what’s required to coordinate any kind of global efforts to accomplish this. There can be no weak links among nations because viruses cross borders with ease.
Manage the Meat?
But beyond minimizing the emergence of new viruses at their source, what about protecting our food supply? We should at least consider these steps as well:
- Prohibit the sale of raw meat that hasn’t been irradiated, cleansed with UV lighting, or undergone similar measures.
- Transition to lab grown meat, also called “clean meats” or “cultured meats“.
- Continue to develop and promote plant-based meat substitutes
- Stop eating meat altogether
These all make sense in theory, and they may be beneficial in their own right. But the fact is that pandemic viruses have never started with hundreds of people eating virus-laden meat. Pandemics all begin with one person.
Once that animal to human threshold is crossed in one person (Patient Zero), no amount of meat irradiation or vegetarianism will stop the virus. From that point on, it’s passed through normal, person-to-person interaction – sharing space, breathing air, or coming into contact with bodily fluid, as in the case of Ebola and HIV/AIDS.
So, we need to go back to that fundamental point: minimizing new viruses means reducing the likelihood of these initial interactions and infections ever taking place. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to prevent another viral outbreak, but we certainly can prevent another pandemic.
Okay, so maybe we’ll always have some periodic emergence of localized, horrible viruses. How do we keep them from spreading? How do we “pandemic-proof” the world?
We’ve learned a lot in the last six months, lessons we seem to learn about every century or so, about how to slow a virus and contain its spread. Medical science has a lot to say about how to prevent a virus from becoming a pandemic. Trace the contacts of infected people. Quarantine suspected or actual cases. Dutifully wash hands and surfaces. Wear masks. Limit public gatherings. Socially distance.
We’ve also been reminded that healthcare workers need to have quick access to certain equipment and supplies, especially personal protection equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other medical necessities.
Additionally, in a recent article, William A. Haseltine, formerly of the Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health, points out that antiviral drugs (as opposed to vaccines) can control a coronavirus by binding and blocking the enzymes that most of them need in order to grow. Those enzymes are similar across all coronaviruses. He suggests that it’s not only advisable but very possible to stockpile combinations of these drugs under the BioShield program adopted after 9/11 that’s intended to prevent “new and emerging biological threats.”
Yes, all of this costs money – from reversing deforestation, to educating people about consumption of exotic animals, to stockpiling drugs, to maintaining a significant cache of healthcare worker PPE and citizen masks. There’s no definitive figure that captures all of these, but let’s at least start with:
Conservation International’s estimate that we need to make an investment of between $22.3 billion and $30.1 billion per year (globally) to address deforestation and to minimize the spread of viruses from wild mammals to humans. They compare that figure to the $10-20 trillion that COVID-19 has cost the global economy in 2020 alone.
Researchers at Princeton University offer an even more compelling case for these expenditures. They estimate that the global price tag to regulate the wildlife trade, maintain adequate disease surveillance, and reduce deforestation in critical areas (all at a total cost of $260 billion over 10 years) is a little more than two percent of the estimated global economic cost of COVID-19 over time.
These are very rough estimates of course but if we compare a few billion to the trillions we’re currently spending, plus the magnitude of benefits to humanity makes these programs seem like a pretty solid investment!
Our goal needs to be to not only pandemic-proof our world, but to pandemic-proof our future!