‘We cannot vaccine our way out of pandemic risks’: Global experts appeal to G20 leaders at Independent-supported event

Panellists called on leaders to protect nature to stop pandemics at the event staged by the Vatican COVID-19 Commission

Namita Singh
Friday 03 September 2021 14:59
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Global experts appeal to G20 leaders at Independent-supported event

Global experts convened a roundtable at a Vatican department on Thursday, where they issued an urgent appeal to G20 leaders to “reduce the risk of new pandemics by addressing their root causes”.

The speakers at the conference discussed how to significantly reduce the risk of another outbreak by reducing the risk of disease jumping from animals to humans by regenerating natural habitats and protecting biodiversity.

Among the suggestions included the demand for creation of an independent panel to determine the legality of commercial trade of wild animals and backing sustainable farming practices.

An action plan was produced to be submitted to G20 heads of states ahead of their meeting in Rome next month. It called for the creation of a Planetary Health Defence Fund that would pool about $50 billion a year for 10 years, to finance solutions to prevent future outbreak.

The roundtable, co-hosted by our campaign partner EndPandemics as well as United for Regeneration and the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, was supported by The Independent’s Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign, which was launched in April 2020 in an effort to tackle wildlife crime and habitat destructions.

Steven Galster, CEO of Freeland and co-chair of EndPandemics, began the session by acknowledging the scale of wreckage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “There have been over 200 million people inflicted with the virus, over 4.5 million people have died from it in just 20 months, and economic experts project over $11 trillion in damages and costs from this pandemic worldwide.

“There are concerns that there are variants of the current virus and new viruses can challenge some vaccination programmes,” he continued. “How do we move beyond this current mode of constantly of reacting to and recovering from Covid-19’s strikes and spikes to a point where we are actually focussing on preventing the next pandemic from happening in the first place?”

The speakers at the session agreed that the over-exploitation of nature is a key root cause of pandemics and that “we cannot vaccine our way out of the pandemic risks”.

“The root cause is the movement of pathogens from animals to a person. At the same time we will never address pandemic risk through curtailing people’s travel or trying to monitor people,” said one of the world’s top Emerging Infectious Disease experts, Dr Aaron Bernstein.

Calling the prevention of deforestation an important step towards preventing future zoonotic outbreaks, Dr Bernstein said: “When you prevent deforestation, you not only curtail spill-over risks, you can reduce greenhouse gases that drive climate change, you can protect indigenous people’s rights, you can protect wildlife and hosts of other benefits.”

Dr Catherine Machalaba, a member of the WHO’s One Health High-Level Expert Panel and Senior Policy Advisor, EcoHealth Alliance also spoke about the limitation of post-spillover interventions, explaining how disease risk is not factored into environmental and social impact assessment.

“We are just not aware that when we change an ecosystem, what is likely to happen,” she said, adding: “If we prioritise assessing these risks ahead of time, we can very cost-effectively build a risk reduction into a project design.

“We have to keep in mind that we are not prepared. There is no global authority tasked specifically with pandemic prevention. We need to work upstream. We need to have multi-sector collaboration, we need to work together to focus on prevention, before we see any spillover events occur.”

Outlining the key steps for preventing the future pandemics, Dr Niall McCann, co-chair of EndPandemics, called for reductions in demand for wild animals, phasing out of commercial trade in wild animals, protection and restoration of natural habitats and making farms and food systems safer and healthier.

“Phasing out of commercial trade in wild animals is a huge task riddled with caveats and complications but it is vital,” he said. “With about 40 per cent of infectious diseases coming from wildlife, our continued exportation of wildlife is a public health catastrophe as well as a conservation catastrophe.”

“Viruses don’t discriminate between the legal trade as well as the illegal trade in wildlife. The legal trade must be restricted on grounds of public health and sustainability and illegal trade must be recognised as a serious organised crime that it is. And the policing of both trades must be properly resourced,” he said.

The current international legal framework currently governing the trade of wild animals and combating wildlife crime is “inadequate”, warned John Scanlon, the director of End Wildlife Crime Campaign. The global agreement that currently regulates international trade in wildlife, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), takes decisions solely upon biological and trade criteria, he said.

“It does not take into account the threat posed by such trade to human or animal health and nor does it address domestic wildlife markets. This clearly needs to change,” said Mr Scanlon. “Regulating wildlife needs to be based on one health approach where biological, human and animal health criteria are all taken into consideration”.

He said that there is no global agreement in tackling wildlife crime and as result, the international community and states heavily rely upon CITES “which is a 50-year-old trade-related and not a crime-related convention.”

“Enhanced global connectivity, the ability of international crimes to operate across borders and the trafficking of wildlife at an industrial scale requires both enhanced global cooperation and national responses to tackling wildlife crime.”

He demanded the addition of wildlife crime to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime.

Hunter Lovins, UN advisor on Food Systems and Co-Author of Natural Capitalism, elaborated on the advantages, sustainability and financial viability of regenerative agriculture as she spoke about its contribution to tackling climate change. Calling for a greater focus on agro-ecology, Ms Lovins said the practice is based on soil-carbon which is key to improving the soil quality.

“It’s the key to increasing nutrient density, which is a part of the answer to making people healthier so that we can withstand the pandemic. It’s the key to dealing with climate change, both taking the excess carbon out of the air, and increasing the ability of soil to hold the moisture that falls. It is also the key to profitability,” she added.

“If we increase the soil carbon two per cent, we soak up all the anthropogenic carbon emissions year by year. And if we increase soil carbon more, we are cutting down the amount of carbon that is destroying our planet.”

Acclaimed ethologist Jane Goodall also put her weight behind the panel’s suggestions with a special video message for the speakers.

“We make decisions that lead to short-term gain at the expense of protecting the environment for the future generations,” the 87-year-old primatologist said. “We have embraced the ridiculous idea of inimitable global economic development on a planet with finite natural resources and growing population.

“It is estimated that there will be more than 10 billion of us by 2050. What will happen if we carry on with business as usual? This Covid-19 pandemic has caused so much suffering, loss of life, loss of jobs and economic chaos.” This, she said, “was caused by our disrespect of nature and of animals.”

Award-winning actress and philanthropist, Jane Seymour, who earlier this year backed the Independent and the Evening Standard’s campaign against the illegal wildlife trade, also spoke at the roundtable. The 70-year-old has been working with our charity partner Freeland for over a year to raise awareness on their co-led campaign EndPandemics.

She was joined by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly Nguyen Tuong Van and Marcello Palazzi, Founder and Global Ambassador of the Benefit Corporation.

Demonstrating the importance of leadership in effectively combating wildlife crimes within the state boundaries, Kenyan Ambassador to France and the Vatican, Professor Judy Wakhungu shared the steps that she took as the minister of environment, water and natural resources in the country. In 2013, she enacted the Wildlife Act at a time when the poaching levels in the country was “extremely high” and law enforcement was “extremely week.”

“When it was enacted in January 2014, it had the highest penalties in the world for poaching,” she said. “We also continued with a number of practices which was to also educate the judiciary so that the magistrate could also understand that poaching, illegal wildlife trafficking were actually economic crimes and not just petty crimes.”

Sharing the impact of this move, she said that the country reported zero poaching of elephants and rhinos between 2020 and 2021. “Of course, we also know that the most poached animal is the pangolin and we still have quite a bit of work to do over that especially working with international partners and especially the markets in Asia. But that is work in progress.”

Harald Link, Chairman and CEO of B Grimm Group, Oliver Poole, ESI Media’s Executive Editor, and Dr Klaus Wucherer, chairman of Infineon also spoke at the event that was co-hosted by Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. Co-hosting was Walter Link, co-chair of United for Regeneration and member of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission.

“We cannot afford any longer to do business that contradicts regeneration,” said Mr Link. “Regeneration is not a nice philosophical idea. It is an imperative imposed by the unavoidable laws of nature.”

“We can choose to rigorously act and prevent future pandemics or we can waste again millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Prevention is obviously much more humane and much more cheaper and is supports other priorities such as climate change, biodiversity and sustainable economic development. The choice is once again ours.”

The recommendations made by the event to the G20 leaders can be found on www.endpandemics.earth

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