The Cost of Preventing a Pendemic

Pandemics can be prevented, and it (probably) won’t cost a lot.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It lets us look back at the oversights that we have made and consider what could have—and should have—been done differently. In hindsight, for example, the government should have responded more rapidly to the pandemic. As much as COVID-19 has been an extraordinary occurrence, it has also been a predictable and, to an extent, preventable phenomenon.

New zoonotic diseases, or diseases caused by pathogens spread from animals, have a history of “spilling over” annually from their natural hosts (primates, bats, other wildlife, domesticated animals) to humans. Approximately two new viral spillover events have occurred every year for the past century, each with the potential to create a widespread pandemic. The SARS and H1N1 epidemics and the spread of HIV are examples of spillover events. The virus behind the current pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, is part of the coronavirus family, which commonly infects mammals, birds, and sometimes, humans. SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have originated from bats due to its close relationship with RaTG13, a bat coronavirus. As interactions between humans and wildlife disease reservoirs, which are wildlife populations and environments in which pathogens naturally reside, increase with time, the subsequent potential for disease spillover increases.

In light of the ongoing pandemic, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Andrew Dobson and colleagues published an analytical study proposing feasible pandemic prevention measures for the future and their costs. According to the study, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a $5.6 trillion loss in global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as well as $2.5 to $10.2 trillion in human lives based on ranging mortality. In the study, Dobson et al. cited the reduction of deforestation and the regulation of wildlife trade as two primary means of spillover prevention.

Forest edges, particularly those of tropical forests, are ideal regions for novel spillover events to occur. Most contact that humans and their livestock have with wildlife is likely to occur in these areas. As humans continue to cut through and within forests for agricultural space, lumber, infrastructure expansion, and other reasons, forest perimeters grow. As human populations neighboring forest edges grow, so do contact rates. While deforestation reduces wildlife populations, growing human populations increase the magnitude of spillover events in the off chance that they do occur. Activities such as hunting, farming, and trading wildlife further compound transmission routes. As such, curbing deforestation may be a viable method of reducing viral emergences and spillover event frequency. The study estimates that a 40 percent reduction in deforestation in regions at high risk of spillover may cost approximately $1.5 to $9.6 billion annually, based on what methods are used (direct prevention as opposed to policy changes and other programs). In addition to spillover prevention, this approach also brings ecological preservation and reductions in carbon emissions.

The wildlife trade is an extensive industry, as well as a major source of human contact with wild animals and viruses. The U.S. alone is the world’s largest in terms of wildlife importation, a process rife with opportunities for viral transmission. Dobson et al. suggest that laws banning the transportation of high-risk disease reservoir species such as primates, bats, pangolins, and rodents may be necessary to prevent the spillover of zoonoses. Chinese wet markets were thought to have been the source of SARS-CoV-2 at one time, resulting in a suspension (but not long-term ban) on wildlife trading in China. The Chinese wildlife farming industry is worth approximately $20 billion and employs around 15 million people. The largest expenditure proposed in the study is the cost of ending said wildlife industry in China, coming in at an estimated $19.4 billion annually. The study does not consider the trade occurring in other regions with large trade networks such as southern Asia and Africa.

Some researchers believe that the wildlife trade is given too much emphasis as a source of disease transmission, and that the returns on investment are not worth the costs. They emphasize public health protocols, which Dobson et al. also cite as in need of support. Wildlife management and health screening are also necessary in order to reduce transmission rates, but the study found that international conventions and regional wildlife enforcement networks are mostly underfunded, putting disease management out of their budget.

As a whole, the study proposes a plan that involves both deforestation prevention and wildlife trade regulation costing approximately $22 to $31 billion annually to reduce future pandemic risk. Factoring in an estimated $4 billion in benefits from carbon reduction, the cost comes out to $18 to $27 billion annually. In comparison to the $5 trillion loss in global GDP and additional loss of human lives, the proposed plan is a small price to pay. In order to justify the costs, the researchers claim that the plan must reduce pandemic risk by only 27 percent in the next year below baseline probability. Despite a lack of present information and the use of inaccurate estimates regarding the efficacy of preventative measures, the researchers found prevention to be a worthwhile investment. The study is relatively new and thus presents only a handful of viable methods for pandemic prevention going into the future.

As a normal person without billions to spend, what can you do to stop pandemic spread? I recommend exercising common sense. COVID-19 is spread primarily person-to-person through respiratory droplets. The CDC recommends washing your hands consistently before eating or touching your face, as well as after leaving public spaces and handling anything that could be in contact with others’ or your own respiratory fluids. Wear an effective mask properly, avoid excessive contact with others (it’s painful, but do everyone a favor), and clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects taken from outside the home. Follow these simple precautions and you’re helping to reduce the impacts of a phenomenon that could take billions to prevent annually.