We cannot vaccinate our way to planetary health

We should not just be asking how to create jabs to deal with the effects of the latest zoonotic disease, but how to cut such scourges off at the source

Jeff Seabright
Wednesday 24 March 2021 16:32
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In the US, UK and many other countries, immunisation against Covid-19 is marketed as a passport to freedom. The remarkable achievements in vaccines over the past year have shown that we can protect human health against the threat of new diseases. But what happens when humans themselves are the threat to the health of the planet? We can’t vaccinate our planet against pollution, biodiversity loss, or climate change.

The last year has been a wake-up call – human health and the health of our planet are entirely linked. Zoonotic diseases occur because of the stress placed on the natural world by humans. These diseases, and there will be more, threaten our wellbeing.

The concept of planetary health joins together these dots, recognising that climate change diminishes biodiversity, and the absence of biodiversity hastens climate change. Climate change can act as a promoting factor for the expansion of disease vectors, such as certain mosquito-borne diseases, thereby threatening human health. The discipline of planetary health recognises that the very expansion of the human population, and the settlements to support it, is having a negative effect on natural habitats, and in turn fuelling negative human health outcomes. It recognises that plastics negatively affect biodiversity, in turn having a negative impact on everything from microscopic krill to humans to the largest creatures on our planet.

There are plenty of corporations that would prefer us to ignore these warnings. It is sobering to remind ourselves that tobacco companies spent much of the twentieth century dismissing the link between cigarettes and cancer. As straight denial became less credible, they called for more research and demanded ‘absolute proof of causation’. Decades of deaths followed.

The plastics lobby today is just as powerful, and is buoyed by major oil companies betting their futures on plastic production. These interests don’t deny plastic pollution is happening, but they deliberately obfuscate, confuse and delay actions to address it. As the White House climate change adviser to the Clinton Administration, I lost count of the number of times I was told moving from the status quo to more sustainable options was just too difficult or too costly, in the short-term.

Yet some businesses are now leading governments in this territory. From the conglomerates, who see the Earth as a ‘stakeholder’ in their business – and one even more important than their shareholders – to the small Cambridge-based start-up of which I’m now chair, Xampla, where we’re using the best scientific minds in the world to create natural alternatives to plastic. These developments cannot come too soon.

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So far there is no ‘absolute proof of causation’ between microplastics in the air we breathe and food we eat, and any human health issue. Likewise, the evidence on how zoonotic diseases jump from animals to humans paints a conflicting picture.  But it is surely complacent to assume that the human body is a uniquely capable chemical recycling system, which can simply break plastic down, or that we should just hope for the best in keeping respiratory diseases inside bats and outside humans.

We should see these as risks here and now, rather than waiting for more evidence to emerge. When it comes to planetary health, the ‘precautionary principle’ is every bit as important as in the wider climate argument. To that end, we should be asking not just how to create vaccines to deal with the effects of the latest zoonotic disease to affect humans, or how to fish plastic out of the oceans, but how to cut such scourges off at source. We should approach planetary health as we do our own. Brilliant researchers and medics are constantly making advances in how we treat lung cancer. But the first advice any doctor would offer is to give up smoking. Humans need to deal with our addiction to plastic, which is harming the health of our planet.

Our understanding of the concept of planetary health has developed in this decade, as our understanding of climate change has in previous decades. My hope is that we’ll learn from the experience of our compromised response to climate change, and – this time – our politicians will lead us with actions to address our planetary health.

Jeff Seabright is a former executive director of the White House Climate Change Task Force, and chair of Xampla, which makes natural replacements for plastic

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