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Imagine it's 2035. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its infighting over masks and economic and political collapse, feels like a bad dream. With the help of a vaccine, the world finally escaped the new coronavirus.
Then you hear something on the news. A mysterious virus is spreading abroad. Symptoms are fever, chills, and cough. Will Another Global Pandemic Change Your Life?
Today (in 2020), while everyone is distracted by the current crisis, some scientists are looking to the future. They hope to prevent the next pandemic, looking at viral threats that, in 10 or 20 years or even sooner, could bring the world back to its knees. The coronavirus, like most dangerous pathogens, originated in animals (most likely a bat) and then "spilled over" to humans, either through human contact with the bat itself, or through another infected species. like a pangolin.
Now there is a plan to prevent such side effects from occurring in the first place, for a fraction of the economic cost of COVID-19. In a new study published online Thursday in the journal Science, a group of infectious disease experts argue that future pandemics can be stopped through a set of preventive measures that reduce interactions between humans and wildlife, and protect the environment. environment at the same time. Among the measures: preserve forests, curb illegal wildlife trade, and begin an extensive surveillance system to detect emerging diseases before they spread.
"We have many examples of these actions that reduce risk," said Aaron Bernstein, one of the authors of the article and acting director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. . "So we know it's possible, but we haven't really invested anything."
According to Bernstein, one of the most important interventions would be to stop the uncontrolled destruction of forests, particularly in the tropics. When trees are cut down for timber or mining, wild animals roam towns and cities in search of new habitats and foods. When that happens, they are more likely to run into people and spread dangerous diseases.
Another source of concern is the illegal (and sometimes legal) wildlife trade. In many areas of the world, primates, crocodiles, and other wild animals are sold indoors with livestock, offering many opportunities to share viruses and then infect humans. According to the researchers, policymakers need to pass legislation that keeps high-risk species, such as bats, pangolins and rodents, out of markets.
Governments could also start new surveillance programs, monitoring particular "hot spots" like West Africa and Southeast Asia, where new diseases are most likely to emerge. Bernstein said governments should regularly monitor and test people who spend a lot of time around wildlife or livestock for new pathogens to avoid new root diseases.
Researchers estimate that all of these actions combined could cost between $ 22 and $ 31 billion a year, a fraction of the pandemic's estimated $ 27 trillion hit to the global economy this year (let alone the 620,000 deaths so far). "Salvation is cheap," Bernstein said.
By way of comparison, the US Congress has already passed a $ 2 trillion stimulus package in response to the economic fallout, and is considering a second round. Globally, government spending on COVID-19 recovery has already exceeded $ 9 trillion.
Bernstein said that even if these preventative measures were implemented every year for 10 years, they would only add up to about 2 percent of the expected economic consequences of the current pandemic.
Some of the proposed policies are also aligned with global environmental goals. Tropical forests absorb carbon from the air, slow climate change, and also provide the necessary habitats for many threatened species. The measures would also protect biodiversity and support sustainable agricultural practices, said Dennis Carroll, an expert on animal-borne infectious diseases who was not involved in the new study.
"There is no doubt that the proposed actions could be highly effective in preventing contagion," he said by email.
After all, nobody wants another 2020.