Climate change could make pandemics like COVID-19 much more common

Climate change could make pandemics like COVID-19 much more common

The likelihood of an extreme, or COVID-19-like, outbreak will triple over the next few decades, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used data from epidemics over the past 400 years, in particular mortality rates, the duration of previous epidemics and the rate of new infectious diseases. Their calculation is a sophisticated prediction based on known risks and can be a useful guide for policy makers and public health officials.

They also found that the chance of a person experiencing a pandemic like COVID-19 in their lifetime is about 38%. The researchers said that could double in the coming years.

The likelihood of another pandemic “is probably going to increase because of all the environmental changes that are happening,” Willian Pan, an associate professor of global environmental health at Duke University and one of the authors of the study, told ABC News. ‘study.

Scientists are closely studying the relationship between climate change and zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19.

Climate change and zoonoses

Zoonotic diseases are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, animals can carry viruses and bacteria that humans can encounter directly, through contact, or indirectly, through things like soil or the water supply.

“As you reduce this interface between humans and the natural world, we just come into more contact with these things and the climate improves the ability of viruses to infect us more easily,” Pan said. He said our risk of contracting zoonotic or emerging viral infections will increase over time.

The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa is an example.

“There is evidence that there is a loss of forests in West Africa for palm oil. There is a whole story around the palm oil industry, destroying rainforests to plant oil palms,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, director of the Climate MD program at the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health.

“In this case, there are bats that live in these forests but they cannot live in the oil palm plantations. And so these bats have moved to part of East Africa. West where they infected people with Ebola,” Bernstein said.

Zoonotic diseases now account for 60% of all diseases and 75% of emerging diseases, according to the CDC.

“More animals come into contact with more people, but they have also, in many cases, resulted in collisions between animals and other animals,” Bernstein said. “What we’ve observed is that animals and even plants are rushing towards the poles to escape the heat. And in doing so, they can encounter creatures that they’ve never encountered before. And that creates an opportunity for an overflow to occur.”

Health workers at a COVID-19 isolation center on March 7, 2022, in Hong Kong, China.

Louise Delmotte/Getty Images, FILE

Look forward

Currently, scientists are trying to catch up with viral outbreaks by rushing to create vaccines, sometimes after an outbreak is already spiraling out of control.

“We can’t deal with pandemics with band-aids. That is, after waiting for diseases to appear and then trying to figure out how to fix them,” Bernstein said.

Pan added: “Overall, if we want to prevent another major pandemic from completely disrupting our society, we need to start investing heavily and sharing information between countries on monitoring different virus infections. There are places in the world where we don’t even have the basic ability to assess or test for strains, viral fevers coming into hospitals and so a lot of these things are not controlled until it’s too late.

Preventing these diseases requires not only global collaboration, but also attention to the source of the problem.

“We have to deal with the fallout. And that means we have to protect habitats. We have to deal with climate change. We have to deal with the risk of large-scale animal production, as many pathogens move from wild animals to livestock , then people,” Bernstein said.

Global spending on COVID vaccines is expected to reach $157 billion, according to Reuters. Annual expenditure on forest conservation is much lower.

“We are about to spend a lot of money on solutions that only solve a fraction of the problem. We are recovering very little compared to what we could recover for $1 spent on post-spill response compared to the preventing root causes,” Bernstein said. .

Emma Egan is an MPH candidate at Brown University and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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