Unpacking Covid-19 and the Connections Between Ecosystems, Human Health, and Security
“What are the underlying drivers of risk that created the conditions for Covid-19 to emerge, and how do we better address them?” said Lauren Herzer Risi, Project Director for the Environmental Change and Security Program, in this week’s Friday Podcast, recorded during a recent Wilson Center Ground Truth Briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic. This question framed the discussion, which explored the intersection of the environment, public health, and national security. Although the global pandemic came as a shock to many, the novel coronavirus was not a surprise to epidemiologists and experts who had been sounding the alarm for decades. There have been clear signals of the risks we face from animal-to-human virus transmission, including Ebola, SARS, and other regional epidemics, said Risi. These zoonotic diseases, especially now, are creating concerns about food safety, wildlife conservation, and public health. But the risks don’t just come from wet markets and our increasingly connected world.
Drivers of the Outbreak
Rapid urbanization and population growth created a ticking time bomb, as we have increasingly intruded into natural habitats. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife ecosystems has brought humans into closer contact with animals than ever before. While the exact origins of coronavirus have yet to be confirmed, we know that this amplified opportunity for virus transmission is a major factor. “An estimated 70 percent of new human infectious disease outbreaks come from pathogens that originated in animals,” said Sharon Guynup, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and a National Geographic Explorer.
We are constantly expanding our interaction with animals and nature. “We need to be very, very clear that this is a human-made problem, a humanity-made problem,” said Dr. Ellen Carlin, Assistant Research Professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security and Director of the Graduate Program in Global Infectious Disease at Georgetown University. “It’s really all of us collectively making decisions about the way that we live.” Human behavior puts pressure on natural ecosystems through land use and development, mass urbanization, agricultural intensification, extractive industries, and the growing global demand for commodities. Climate change further exacerbates the environmental degradation. Overall this trend is accelerating the emergence of zoonotic diseases in human populations.
Another aspect of this close contact between humans and animals is the prevalence of illegal wildlife trade and consumption. Some have called for bans in China, but wildlife trade and wet markets aren’t unique to China, and a solution will require global efforts, said Guynup. It will also be crucial to uphold and enforce the bans put into place, as China’s actions will have a ripple effect on the policies of neighboring consumer and hub countries. For progress to be made, she said, countries must develop multi-pronged approaches, including strengthening policies and enforcement at national levels, raising public awareness, promoting community involvement, and changing consumer behavior. While Covid-19 is much bigger than just a wildlife trade issue, it is a critical piece of the puzzle, said Guynup.
National Security Risks
The cascading impacts of the pandemic on human health, national economies, and society has elevated the coronavirus as not just a public health crisis, but a national security threat as well. There is currently a disconnect between environmental threats and security paradigms, said Rod Schoonover, founder and CEO of Ecological Futures Group. “Unfortunately, U.S. national security is outdated and needs to be recalibrated, I think, to reflect the threats that the country faces,” he said. Topics like climate change, land use, and biodiversity need to be core national security concerns instead of add-ons to geopolitical goals, said Schoonover, who was Director of Environment and Natural Resources for the National Intelligence Council. Security dialogues need to involve experts such as epidemiologists, ecologists, and climate scientists in order to establish a climate-smart, ecologically informed pandemic preparedness policy. “If you understand the deep connectedness of the planet,” he said, “you understand that the very support system of humanity is in jeopardy.”
Solutions for Covid-19
How to solve the current pandemic is a priority, but developing long-term plans for how we can better prepare for next pandemic is also important. “Given the deep interconnectedness of our world, this coronavirus will not be the last outbreak,” said Guynup. Among the many scientific and global health initiatives looking to develop solutions, the Global Virome Project is working to discover unknown zoonotic viral threats and stop future pandemics before outbreaks occur. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness is coordinating the development of vaccines against coronavirus and emerging infectious diseases. Although there is no binding global legal agreement on wildlife crime, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), is scaling up enforcement efforts and incorporating the consideration of health risks.
We need to tackle the drivers of the pandemic to ultimately achieve prevention, said Dr. Carlin. A shift of epic proportions will be needed to reduce environmental and ecosystem harm. We have a choice to ignore recommendations and continue on with business as usual, or we can recognize our vulnerability to these emerging viral threats, Guynup said. “Our well-being is inextricably linked with that of the planet’s web of life,” she said. “In fact, one could argue that the state of the world can be measured by the state of the wild.”