Europe’s role in preventing the ‘era of pandemics’ and protecting biodiversity

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our health, social and economic well-being. To avert future crises from spiralling out of control, strategies to prevent pandemics need to be in place before the next outbreak occurs. Until now, this has not been the case.

The latest IPBES report calls for a shift towards prevention, explicitly linking pandemic risk to biodiversity loss in tropical regions. While the report focuses on regions beyond the EU, Europe has a strong role in implementing its recommendations. IEEP’s research suggests a course of action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated headlines and minds in 2020, affecting all facets of life and forcing a re-evaluation of longstanding practices to protect public health. To avoid a future of more frequent and disastrous pandemics, we urgently need strategies to address their drivers, including biodiversity loss. This preventative action would not only avoid the irreversible impacts of pandemics but would also be hundreds of times cheaper than the drastic measures needed to react to these events.

Biodiversity and future pandemic risk are inextricably linked

The International Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report reviews the evidence for the connections between biodiversity and disease emergence, spread and impact. Welcoming these findings, German minister Svenja Schulze has urged investment in nature to stop the next pandemic.

Most pandemics are caused by microbes that infect wild animal populations. These are an important part of biodiversity, but they can lead to novel, zoonotic diseases when transmitted to humans either directly or indirectly through livestock or other domestic animals. The likelihood of these spill-over events happening and spreading to become pandemics has multiplied with rising human encroachment into ecosystems, and increasingly connected global transport and trade.

Tropical regions are hotspots for zoonotic diseases due to (1) their higher biodiversity and microbial diversity, (2) rapid demographic change, (3) accelerated land-use change, and (4) often lower capacity for early detection and prevention. The tropics are therefore on the frontlines of pandemic prevention, but the responsibility to act is global.

Europe’s role in driving disease emergence through consumption and trade

Europe’s activities indirectly contribute to increased pandemic risk in the tropics through:

  • Land-use change: Land-use change can trigger disease emergence by increasing human-wildlife contact, or by changing disease dynamics in wild animal populations. European consumption drives land-use change in the tropics through a demand for products linked to unsustainable activities (e.g. agricultural intensification, livestock production, logging and mining). Alarmingly, according to the European Commission communication, EU consumption is responsible for 10% of global deforestation. Moreover, these activities directly contribute to biodiversity loss and climate change which further increases pandemic risk.
  • Wildlife and wildlife-derived product trade: European demand for wildlife and wildlife products increases zoonosis risk through amplifying wildlife-human contact. Moreover, global wildlife supply chains create conditions that increase the likelihood of transmission and cross-species spill-over as animals are stored in high densities and come in close contact with other species.

Opportunities for solutions to decrease future pandemic risk through EU policy for 2021 and beyond

With the President of the European Council’s recent proposal for an international treaty on pandemics, it is important to consider what role Europe can play in preventing, predicting and preparing for future pandemics. Since pandemic risk and biodiversity loss-share drivers, solutions can simultaneously address both. Europe’s continued ambition to tackle biodiversity loss amid the pandemic is therefore refreshing and necessary.

Two key recommendations from the IPBES report are particularly relevant to Europe and supported by IEEP analysis:

  1. Increasing sustainability and reducing pandemic risk due to land-use change and agricultural expansion
  • IBES identifies the need to reduce consumption of products associated with land-use change. This is a welcome suggestion that could be partially addressed through the new EU Biodiversity Strategy which, to reduce indirect drivers of global biodiversity loss, proposes the implementation of biodiversity provisions in trade agreements and the provision of market signals. Addressing this, the Commission’s Communication for the EU Green Deal proposed actions to reduce the deforestation impact of EU consumption. Following calls from the European Parliament, the Commission has committed to putting forward a legal framework to stop products linked to deforestation from being sold in the EU with the adoption of a proposal for a regulation planned for the second quarter of 2021. A recent IEEP discussion paper proposes legally binding sustainability criteria for deforestation-free agricultural commodities. Importantly, these should extend to other land-use changes and human rights violations. Clear and implementable definitions for land-use change, appropriate base years and full traceability of products will be necessary.  
  • The expert report suggests labelling and certification schemes for products that are linked to practices that reduce pandemic risk. For example, labelling food commodities and products that are ecosystem-degradation free can encourage the consumption of products that both protect biodiversity and reduce pandemic risk. The expert report also suggests labelling products linked to activities that increase pandemic risks. For example, labelling fur trims with the species name and captive wildlife sold as pets with their country of origin and whether they were bred in captivity or caught in the wild. As advised in the report, these instruments would have to be coupled with campaigns to raise awareness on the role of consumption as a driver of pandemic risk and biodiversity loss.
  • To reduce meat consumption, which causes land-use change and increases the likelihood of zoonosis transmission to humans directly from livestock or through wildlife disturbance, the report recommends education and financial instruments. The EC’s new Farm-to-Fork Strategy stresses the need to reduce meat consumption and a recent IEEP post discusses how this can be delivered.
  • The report also highlights pandemic risk considerations in products other than agricultural and forest commodities, namely those linked with mining. Strategies tackling this could be supported under the new EU circular economy action plan, for example by increasing battery recycling.
  1. Reducing pandemic risk due to wildlife trade:
  • A reduction in the consumption of wildlife and wildlife products is recommended by the report. Better tackling Europe’s contribution to illegal wildlife trade could help achieve this. Europe has a pioneering framework in place which is already having an impact globally. The EU should continue building on this framework and ensure its implementation. Promisingly, in the new EU Biodiversity strategy, the Commission has committed to revising the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking in 2021, and possibly strengthening the Environmental Crime Directive and European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) capacities.
  • Pandemic risk considerations in the regulation of international wildlife trade are also suggested. As wildlife trade directly threatens biodiversity, this could also contribute to the commitment to help avert global biodiversity loss. Currently, the WTO SPS agreement encourages members to base measures on international standards such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) standards for zoonotic diseases.
  • Finally, banning trade in species and species groups that are particularly high risk is proposed by the IPBES report. However, in a recent report, the WTO emphasises making trade sustainable through regulation, standards and risk assessments should be encouraged in preference to bans since wildlife trade is an important source of food and livelihood. The report stresses wildlife trade restrictions need to be transparent, evidence-based and fully justified by a risk analysis. Appropriate definitions of zoonosis risk, further research, data collection and monitoring are needed for this and should be supported by the EU.

The role of biodiversity in pandemic prevention provides another strong argument for placing its protection at the forefront of COVID responses and ensuring this extends beyond European borders. The direction the EU is taking to consider the global biodiversity impact of its consumption and trade is a positive first step. These efforts should be supported and expanded in 2021 and beyond to create the transformative change needed to avoid an ‘Era of pandemics’.