Have we learned the lessons that coronavirus has offered us?

Over past decades, the rate of zoonotic disease outbreaks has increased steadily as we continue to encroach upon the natural world – unless we act now, is it only a matter of time before we experience another pandemic? Have we learned the lessons that coronavirus has offered us?   Over recent decades, increasing destruction of nature for farming, logging and the wild animal trade has brought people and their livestock into closer contact with wild animals than ever before. This has led to an increasing number of diseases crossing from animals to people. A tiny snapshot of the World Health Organization’s list of Disease Outbreaks by Year reveals a chilling story of innumerable disease outbreaks across the globe in the past decade: 2009: H1N1 (swine flu) – the first pandemic of the 21st century

  • Originated in Mexico and quickly spread around the globe
  • Affected more than 214 countries and caused more than 18,449 deaths in two years

2013: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak

  • Transmitted to humans from infected dromedary camels
  • In total, 27 countries have reported cases since 2012, and at least 858 deaths have been reported

2014: Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa

  • EVD is transmitted to people from wild animals, including bats, porcupines and primates
  • Over 12,000 deaths since 2014, with ongoing outbreaks this year in Guinea, Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo

2015/16: Zika virus outbreak in South America

  • Transmitted to humans via mosquito bites
  • Associated with microcephaly; to date, a total of 86 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-transmitted Zika infection


The warnings that were not heeded

In 2014, President Obama warned about the need for the United States to cast aside partisan differences and prepare for upcoming pandemics. In the United Kingdom (UK), the 2016 Cygnus Exercise revealed that, “the UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies, and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.” However, by 2020, when COVID-19 struck, it became apparent that these warnings were universally ignored and, consequently, much of the world continues to pay a very hefty price.

The lack of preparedness

In the UK, a report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy published in December 2020 used COVID-19 as a test case. In short, insufficient attention was paid to important capabilities ahead of the pandemic. For example, the Government failed to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities. The pandemic also exposed vulnerabilities in the UK’s supply of personal protective equipment and in its ability to tackle false or misleading information online.

To prevent the next pandemic, we need global action to start right now

The Preventing Pandemics at the Source coalition states that, “we can emerge from COVID-19 more enlightened and deliberate, or we can go back to business as usual, once again ignoring the root causes of pandemics that will arise in the future.” To prevent future pandemics, we must alter our relationship with nature by halting deforestation, restrict the commercial wildlife trade and improve biosecurity around livestock. Moving forwards, it is imperative we realize that pandemics are not something that happen to us; rather, they are something we help to create by not carefully considering the relationship between nature and our own health. Knowing this, we can take the opportunity to learn from our recent mistakes and recognize humanity’s dependence on the natural systems that support us.

Further reading

World Health Organization. Disease outbreaks by year. Available from: https://www.who.int/csr/don/archive/year/en/   Cheng VCC, et al. Two years after pandemic influenza A/2009/H1N1: what have we learned? Clin Microbiol Rev. 2012;25(2):223–63.   Dyer C. Report of UK’s pandemic preparedness leaves questions unanswered, says doctor. BMJ 2020; 371. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4499 (Published 18 November 2020).   Preventing Pandemics At The Source. Available from: https://www.preventingfuturepandemics.org/   Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Government failed to act on its security plans for a pandemic. Available from: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/111/national-security-strategy-joint-committee/news/137998/government-failed-to-act-on-its-security-plans-for-a-pandemic/

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