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It was recently estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic could cost the world economy $26.8 trillion over the next 5 years. This was the consensus estimate, but the range was as high as $82 trillion. This is a monumental amount of money that is hard to wrap your head around. What is easier to see, however, is that this leaves a lot of room to spend money on prevention. If, for example, the world spends $100 billion a year on preventive measures, that would still cost much less than a similar pandemic once a century – and pandemics are more frequent than that.

Another study calculates how much it would cost to significantly reduce the transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans, which is a common source of recent pandemics including HIV, MERS, SARS-CoV-1, H1N1, and SARS-CoV-2. They found:

…significantly reducing transmission of new diseases from tropical forests would cost, globally, between $22.2 and $30.7 billion each year. In stark contrast, they found that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely end up costing between $8.1 and $15.8 trillion globally–roughly 500 times as costly as what it would take to invest in proposed preventive measures.

They used an even more conservative estimate for the cost of COVID-19 than the prior study so the savings would likely be much greater. However, the “500 times” is misleading because that compares the total loss from the pandemic over years to the cost of a single year of preventive measures. This does not consider on average how many years of prevention would prevent a single pandemic. But given that we are seeing a pandemic about once a decade, their point is still extremely valid.

The preventive measures they focus on in this study is management of tropical forests. They argue that the above listed viral pandemics all represent transmission from tropical animals to human due to exposure from industry. This is due to encroaching into tropical forests for farming, herding animals, and hunting for bushmeat. Often forests are cut down in a patchwork fashion, maximizing the area of human-worked land next to wild forest.

Livestock can be another vector. They can become infected from wild animals, and then pass that infection onto humans when they are consumed. Of course, having markets with wild animals for sale, as likely happened with SARS-CoV-2, is also a vector. This is big industry. They report, for example:

In China alone, wildlife farming (a government-monitored effort to sustainably hunt wild animals without overhunting them) is an approximately $20 billion industry, employing 15 million people, say Kaufman and his peers. In many China communities, the purchase of wildlife and bushmeat–meat from wildlife species–is a status symbol.

The authors recommend regulations to ban such wildlife markets. In addition we need to spend money to manage and protect tropical forests. We need to stop incursions into wild tropical forests for farming, grazing, and hunting. China is considering banning such practices, which would be a good start.

There are likely many other things we can be doing to reduce the probability of another pandemic, or improve our response in order to minimize its impact. Given the massive global cost of such pandemics, robust measures are easily justified. Hopefully COVID-19 will be a wake up call – but it is not as if we didn’t already know this was coming.

Our own Mark Crislip, for example, in an interview on the SGU 13 years ago laid out pretty much the exact scenario we are now living through. Mark is an infectious disease expert, but not specifically an expert in pandemics. He was not part of some rarefied group of elite scientists who knew what was going on. The notion that another pandemic was coming was common knowledge among medical experts.

In his 2012 book, Spillover, David Quammen not only predicted that more pandemics were on the way, he specifically warned that the virus would come from the wild animal market. And again, this insight was not unique to him. Regarding why we weren’t more prepared, he said in an interview:

Yes, the lack of preparedness is the only thing about this whole situation that has surprised me. I didn’t have any illusions that the people who control the wheels of power and government were listening carefully to the scientists, but I thought they were listening at least enough to have some preparedness. And in this country, of course, I knew that [President] Trump was trying to defund the Centers for Disease Control as much as he could and had gotten rid of the key people on the National Security Council who were in charge of pandemic preparedness.

There is no mystery why the world was not as prepared as we should have been, and the US specifically, despite its wealth and resources, has been doing so badly. This was a political failure. The scientific community knew what was going to happen, not just in general but pretty specifically. They even warned about another novel coronavirus years ago. And yet, in a press briefing, Donald Trump said the pandemic was “a very unforeseen thing.” It could not have been more foreseen.

Quammen also agrees on the dominant cause:

Our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, and intrusive, and disruptive. Those things shake loose viruses from their natural hosts. All these wild animals carry their own unique viruses. When we go into a tropical forest with its great diversity, and we start cutting down trees, and capturing animals, or killing animals for food, then we offer those viruses the opportunity to become our viruses, to jump into us and find a new host, a much more abundant host. And when a virus moves from an infected animal into a human, it’s won the sweepstakes. It can now spread around the world and become one of the world’s most successful viruses, which this coronavirus now is.

In addition to better managing tropic forests and limiting contact between humans and wild animals likely to transmit viruses, we need to improve our health care preparedness. Steps were taken to do exactly that following recent pandemics, but these were easily reduced and dismantled once the memory of the last pandemic faded and according to the whims of the current administration. We need more robust, independent, and sustainable organizations to have the infrastructure necessary to nip the next pandemic in the bud. Globally we failed to do that this time, and we are paying the price.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.