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Preventing Pandemics at the Source

Table of Contents

Why it matters: Current discussions about preventing the next pandemic are heavily focused on taking actions only after people get sick. But science and recent experience make clear that we can protect health by working to stop pandemic pathogens before they infect anyone.

The background: Over the last 100 years, about two viruses per year have jumped from animals to people. These “spillover” events are driven by actions like deforestation, wildlife trade, and risky agricultural practices, which also increase climate change. Climate change also pushes animals on land and in the sea to move to new places, creating opportunities for pathogens to get into new hosts.

The upshot: Safeguarding nature comes at a fraction of the cost of managing a pandemic after it starts, and could dramatically cut the risks of another pandemic emerging while conferring additional benefits that are good for our health and for the planet.

What we’re doing:

Our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein and colleagues are providing recommendations for global coordination and calling on world leaders to urgently act to prevent pandemics before they start. 

Together with Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), we have convened the Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source, a group of experts from around the world to identify the most effective ways to prevent new infectious diseases like COVID-19 before they start. 

Their report outlines the strong scientific foundations for stopping the next pandemic by preventing the spillover of pathogens from animals to people. It provides recommendations for research and actions that have largely been absent from high-level discussions about pandemic prevention, including a novel call to integrate conservation actions with strengthening healthcare systems globally. 

A study led by our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein shows the annual costs of “primary pandemic prevention” actions (~$20 billion) are less than 5% of the lowest estimated value of lives lost from emerging infectious diseases every year, less than 10% of the economic costs, and provide substantial co-benefits. Read the Science Advances study.

We also found that the costs of preventing future zoonotic outbreaks like COVID-19—by preventing deforestation and regulating the wildlife trade—are as little as $22 billion a year, 2% of the economic and mortality costs of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which some economists predict could reach $10-20 trillion. Read the Science study.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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