There could be as many as 850,000 undiscovered viruses lurking in animals and waiting to infect humans, scientists have warned.
A new report convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says that without action to protect wildlife, more deadly pandemics are inevitable.
Coronavirus, which is believed to have spread from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China at the end of last year, is just one example of a zoonotic illness with devastating consequences.
The report, which was drawn up by 22 experts, estimates there are between 540,000 and 850,000 currently undiscovered viruses in birds and mammals that either have or could develop the ability to infect humans.
At present more than five new diseases are emerging in humans every year, all of which could morph into a pandemic.
But rather than reacting to the emergence of zoonotic (meaning able to pass from one species to another) disease with public health measures, our response should focus on repairing our destructive relationship with animals and nature.
The experts are calling for an end to the unsustainable exploitation of the natural environment, including deforestation, intensive agriculture and the trade and consumption of wild species.
The practice of eating wild animals, common in China and other countries, has led to “almost all pandemics”, the report said, as it increases physical contact between humans and the animals likely to be carrying zoonotic diseases such as bats.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic the Chinese government cracked down on the trade, banning the sale of wild animals nationwide.
If the rest of the world was to follow suit, it would eradicate such hotbeds of infection as wet markets which provide the perfect environment for diseases to move from animals to humans.
Other measures recommended in the report include taxing meat and livestock production, making better efforts at environmental conservation and encouraging people to eat fewer animal products.
The report estimates such steps would cost around £31-45 billion per year — a fraction of what it costs world governments to combat pandemics like Covid-19.
Only by taking these radical steps will we finally be able to “escape the era of pandemics”, the experts say.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic or of any modern pandemic,” said IPBES workshop chairman and EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak.
“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.
“Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people.
“This is the path to pandemics.
“We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”
Public health researcher Andy Jones of the University of East Anglia added: “Biodiversity loss, climate change, international trade and uncontrolled population growth are all creating conditions that make another global pandemic inevitable.
“Unless urgent action is taken, the question is not if we will see another Covid-like pandemic — but simply when will it occur?”