Updated: September 3, 2020
As the world grapples with the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, it is important for all of us to take a moment to look at the root causes of the current crisis and what can be done to avoid future outbreaks.
The connection between COVID-19 and wildlife markets in China has been widely reported (Listen to WCS Executive Director of Wildlife Health Christian Walzer discuss the impact of these markets) What is getting less coverage is the link between the rising incidence of zoonotic diseases (diseases that move from non-human animals to humans) and the human invasion and destruction of wild habitat. When industrial or commercial activities such as mining, timber extraction, or wildlife trade push into areas where wildlife carry pathogens that humans have rarely encountered it can become a major problem, especially if those pathogens find new pathways through commercial activity to spread widely or when live animals are traded commercially for human consumption. (The conditions animals in the wildlife trade are kept under often promote shedding of viruses that might never have been a problem in their native habitat.)
Conditions in wildlife markets, where different species are often mixed in crowded conditions, can increase stress and lead to increased virus shedding by captive animals. Credit: @Sam小K on Weibo
The result can be what scientists call “spillover” – the rapid movement of bacteria or viruses to new hosts: us. But what is even more important to understand is how weakened natural systems tend to accelerate or reinforce this spillover effect. In places where natural habitat has been badly degraded, natural hosts for pathogens may become scarcer or super hosts like rats may flourish. The result can be bad news for people, who become much more vulnerable to infection under these circumstances.
This is one reason why our work at WCS to protect wild places is so important – the health of wild places around the planet directly affects our health. Keeping wild places – like Canada’s boreal or the Amazon – intact is vital to our health in many different ways, from clean water, air and carbon storage to stopping the spillover of zoonotic diseases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of “new or emerging” diseases that infect humans originate in nonhuman animals (and it is not just bats that are responsible). That’s why the Wildlife Conservation Society is calling for an end to the commercial trade in wildlife -- particularly trade in birds and mammals -- for human consumption, while recognizing the importance of food security for local communities and Indigenous peoples. We believe this is the only effective, practical and cost-efficient way to significantly reduce the risk of a future zoonotic pandemic caused by viral spillover from wildlife to humans.
We are also highlighting the increased risks created by the growing human intrusion on wild places, including increased access to formerly inaccessible or intact wild areas through roads and rail, and extraction of natural resources and the need to limit such intrusions.
Here in Canada, we are working to protect globally important wild areas, like the far north in Ontario, the Northern Boreal Mountains of Yukon and British Columbia and the Western Arctic. These areas contribute enormously to the health of our planet, protecting biodiversity and mitigating the effects of climate change. Our work is geared both to documenting the value of these areas in scientific terms and to seeing that these values are protected through smart decision making and policy.
Keeping wild places intact helps protect us from the spread of zoonotic diseases. Credit: Kevin Chan
In 2004, with the publication of the Manhattan Principles, WCS launched the global One Health initiative that has since been adopted by the World Health Organization and others (and sometimes under other names, such as Planetary Health, EcoHealth, etc.). The Principles, updated in 2019 as the Berlin Principles, discusses how the twin pillars of stopping unhealthy wildlife trade and protecting habitat are vital to a concept called “One Planet, One Health, One Future” that recognizes that human health is tightly tied to the health and survival of wild places.
Through its work around the globe, including here in Canada through WCS Canada, WCS has been a leader in developing awareness of the importance of this linkage and the need for countries to come together to address it. WCS is the only large conservation organization with an embedded health program and has implemented the largest NGO program to combat wildlife trafficking worldwide, in partnership with governments, the EU, and several UN agencies, as well as law-enforcement agencies, partner NGOs, local communities, and others. WCS also participated in the PREDICT program, an international effort to strengthen zoonotic pathogen surveillance and create an early warning system for the emergence of new threats.
Canada has much to gain from recognizing the link between the health of wild places and human health. We have a global responsibility for the stewardship of vast wild areas and also a vulnerability to compromised ecosystems. Here in Canada, for example, the spread of diseases like Lyme disease is almost certainly tied to a warming climate. And because urban boundaries have pushed up against habitat for hosts like deer, we are left vulnerable in new ways.
At WCS Canada and through WCS internationally, we are continuing our work to address the root causes of the COVID-19 crisis to ensure we do everything we can to protect human and wildlife health, and to reduce the risks of having a pandemic of wild animal origin such as what we are all experiencing today. You can also learn more about how WCS Canada’s work is supporting First Nations and the Inuvialuit and how we are adapting our research with communities during COVID-19 here.
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Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada