United Nations ignores opportunity to prevent future pandemics

Born Free is disappointed that today’s Declaration by the United Nations fails to protect animals and nature, or tackle key risk factors to prevent pandemics in the future.

A small animal in a cage at a wildlife market

On 20th September, at the end of its 78th session in New York, the theme of which was ‘Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all’, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed a Political Declaration on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response. 

Sadly, the Declaration fell well short when it comes to preventing pandemics.  

Declarations by the UNGA carry significant political weight and can help stimulate and inform complex international negotiations and national responses to a wide range of issues.

While the Declaration recognises that Covid-19 represented one of the greatest challenges in the history of the United Nations, the need to learn lessons from this and other health emergencies, and the value of an integrated One Health approach that fosters cooperation between agencies responsible for human, animal, plant and environmental health, it missed a huge opportunity to generate political momentum for tackling the root causes of pandemics.

In spite of the warnings from international experts that future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, the Declaration singularly fails to focus on practical measures to prevent the emergence of diseases with pandemic potential at source.

Scientists agree that the majority of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin, ie they spread to people from animals, with most originating from wildlife. However, it’s only when we destroy wildlife habitats and put animals under stress that pathogens are likely to emerge and proliferate, and the unnatural close contact with animals when they are collected, transported, farmed, traded and consumed creates the ideal conditions for those pathogens to mutate and spill over to people.

Experts have repeatedly emphasised that preventing pandemics at source would cost a fraction of responding to a pandemic such as Covid-19 once it has emerged.

Responding to the Declaration, Born Free’s Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones said: “We broadly welcome the UN’s recognition of the need for leadership, international collaboration, and measures to ensure the world is prepared for and can respond to future pandemics. However, it’s vital that the global community focusses on preventing those pandemics from emerging in the first place, by tackling the key risk factors such as habitat destruction, wildlife trade and trafficking, and intensive animal agriculture.

“Infectious diseases are emerging and re-emerging at an ever-increasing rate, but we can prevent many of them by reducing our impacts on nature and transforming the welfare of both wild and farmed animals, while transitioning people who currently rely on high-risk activities involving the exploitation of wild animals to alternative livelihoods. The UN General Assembly had an opportunity to focus attention on preventing pandemics at source in its Declaration – sadly it has chosen to virtually ignore it.”

The Declaration makes much of the need for greater equity, particularly around the availability of medical services, therapeutants and vaccines, However, Born Free has long argued that equity can only truly be achieved through a strong focus on prevention, because once pandemics emerge, they inevitably hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest.

Mark Jones continued: “Our decision-makers cannot go on burying their heads in the sand and relying on our ability to respond to emerging diseases through the development of vaccines and treatments. It is vital that the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body, which is negotiating and drafting a global agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response on behalf of the World Health Organization, steps up to ensure that measures to prevent pandemics at source by transforming our relationship with nature, and addressing key risk activities involving animals, are front and centre of that agreement.”

Born Free will continue working alongside our partners in the Pandemics and Animal Welfare coalition to promote the incorporation of measures to prevent pandemics at source, by acknowledging the need to improve our relationship with animals, and by addressing high-risk activities including habitat loss, wildlife exploitation and trade, and intensive animal agriculture, into the global agreement.

Image © Aaron Gekoski for Born Free

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