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expert reaction to an IPBES workshop report on biodiversity and pandemics

A report published online by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) looks at the link between degradation of nature and pandemic risks.


Prof Nick Ostle, Researcher at the CEH Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, said:

“This report is a ‘withering’ reminder that our health, wealth and wellbeing relies on the health, wealth and wellbeing of our environment. The challenges of this pandemic have highlighted the importance of protecting and restoring our globally important and shared environmental ‘life-support’ systems.”


Prof Andrew Cunningham, Deputy Director of Science and Professor of Wildlife Epidemiology, Zoological Society of London, said:

“This is an important and timely report, and the authors are right to focus on preventing future disease emergence rather than trying to predict which pathogen will cause the next pandemic.

“This is a call to governments to fund the right type of research – such as understanding which human behaviours and activities cause new pathogens to infect people – and then to put the findings of this research into practice through national and international policies, in order to minimise the risks of future epidemic or pandemic disease emergence.

“It is no coincidence that we are experiencing a public health crisis at the same time as a biodiversity crisis, and it is incumbent on us all to work to restore biodiversity if we are to protect human health into the future.”


Prof Guy Poppy, Professor of Ecology, University of Southampton, said:

“The IPBES report does an excellent job of understanding the links between man’s continuing impacts on the natural world and the increasing threats of pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on many human and environmental health issues – it’s been like planet Earth taking a barium meal and many problems have been diagnosed.

“What I feel is very valuable is the comprehensive discussion of solutions which provide a range of options – too many reports spend time flagging all the issues whilst rarely exploring what might be done, which can be very frustrating to policymakers. The link between planetary health and human health was already becoming increasingly recognised, but COVID-19 has brought it to the front of everyone’s minds. If we are to maintain human health, we have to also ensure planetary health and the IPBES report offers some approaches to achieving this vital connection.”


Prof John Spicer, Professor of Marine Zoology, University of Plymouth, said:

“Overall, this report highlights that our COVID-19 crisis is not just another crisis alongside others – the biodiversity crisis and the climate change crisis. Make no mistake, this is one big crisis – the greatest that humans have ever faced. And it’s not going to be averted by talk, tinkering or pretending it’s ‘fake news’ – this latest IPBES Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics report makes that crystal clear.

“You cannot tackle one aspect without tackling the others – they are interconnected, inextricable, inescapable… and imminent. Transformative change is what is required and this is what the report puts forward, echoing last year’s IPBES Biodiversity report by the same group – the sort of ‘impossible’ change that ironically characterised 2020, thrust upon us by COVID-19.

“So this report is a document of hope, not despair. The report suggests options and enabling mechanisms for our directing that change rather than having it thrust upon us. Forestalling future pandemics by implementing a number of what would be seen as biodiversity initiatives – controlling change in land use and tackling issues with the wildlife trade. The question is not can we, but will we.”


Dr Alexander Lees, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, Manchester Metropolitan University, said:

“The report is an urgent reminder that the risks to humanity posed by biodiversity loss, climate change and emerging infectious diseases have common causes in our unsustainable levels of resource consumption. This extends from the conversion of whole ecosystems like tropical rainforests into cattle pastures, altering disease dynamics, to chronic over-harvesting of species like pangolins, facilitating disease genesis. Fortunately, there are common solutions in protecting and restoring natural habitats and reducing our collective footprint on the planet. This will mitigate climate change by locking away carbon in habitats like forests and natural grasslands, thereby reversing biodiversity loss and insulating us from many ‘would-be’ pandemics by reducing direct human-wildlife contact associated with disease transmission.”


Prof Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology and Biodiversity, UCL, said:

“These costs are necessarily speculative of course but seem reasonable given the current disruption to our lives across the world. The international community knows how costly infectious disease outbreaks are, else how do you explain why they put things like pandemic flu at the top of their risk registers. What we need now is global leaders to act.”


Dr Mike Rivington, Climate Change Scientist in Information and Computational Sciences, The James Hutton Institute, said:

“The IPBES report is absolutely right in showing why prevention is so much better than cure, and that the cost of prevention is considerably less than those of the impacts. Whilst there may be a cure for COVID-19 in the future, there is not a cure for climate change and biodiversity loss if these pass critical tipping points. Preventing climate change and biodiversity loss and altering the focus of our food systems from efficiency to resilience will substantially reduce future risks from pandemics and ecosystem degradation.”


Prof Colin Campbell, Chief Executive, The James Hutton Institute, said:

“This report from IPBES is spot on and really highlights how we need to view investment in restoring nature as a preventive spend to safeguard lives and the economy. It’s really important we look at the long-term lead up to the current pandemic to be able to adequately plot a course out of repeating the same mistake.”


Prof Andy Jones, Professor of Public Health, University of East Anglia, said:

“This report highlights the fine balance between meeting the needs of human populations, yet not causing environmental damage that risks even more severe disease pandemics than we have observed with COVID-19. Biodiversity loss, climate change, international trade and uncontrolled population growth are all creating conditions that make another global pandemic inevitable. Unless urgent action is taken, the question is not if we will see another COVID-like pandemic, but simply when will it occur?”


Dr Liam Brierley, MRC Skills Development Fellow, University of Liverpool, said:

“This work highlights the importance of human activities that contribute to the emergence of new viral diseases, and draws attention to the fact that viruses continually jump species from animals to humans. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, is just one of these, and predicting the next pandemic in advance is challenging because we still know so little about the complete diversity of wild animal viruses.

“A path forward highlighted by this report is a more structured system that does not just limit these human activities, but also holistically involves better surveillance, economic strategies, and supports communities of people most likely to have contact with wild animals at the local level.

“COVID-19 has reminded us that approaches to pandemics need to be proactive rather than reactive – preparation and prevention is a much safer and more cost-effective strategy than only addressing outbreaks once they’ve already begun. This report paves the way for a more successful pandemic control strategy.”



IPBES Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics: Workshop Report’ based on work by the participants of the workshop was published online by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) at 14:00 UK TIME on Thursday 29th October 2020.



Declared interests

Prof Guy Poppy: “Prof Poppy is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the Food Standards Agency and is Director of the UKRI programme ‘Transforming the UK food system for healthy people and a healthy environment’.”

None others received.

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