UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.

Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.

A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.

Covid-19 graphic
Microbes can pass from animals to humans, causing disease pandemics.
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Humans costs are mounting

The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:

…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.

The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpazees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).

The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.

But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.

Doctor giving injection to patient
Governments are focused on pandemic responses such as developing vaccines, rather than prevention.
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As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:

…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.

The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.




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It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.

People wearing masks in a crowd
The cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention.
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A way forward

The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:

• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation

• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption

• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.

Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:

  • education policies

  • labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured

  • providing incentives for sustainable behaviour

  • increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.

People inspecting haul of wildlife products
Cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent pandemics.
AP

An Australian response

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.

However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.

For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.

The government cut funding of environmental studies courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce so called “green tape” in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic will be led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.




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Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.

But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.

Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.

As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Adjunct Professor University of Western Australia, Institute of Agriculture

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Genome and satellite technology reveal recovery rates and impacts of climate change on southern right whales



University of Auckland tohorā research team, Department of Conservation permit DJI

Emma Carroll

After close to a decade of globe-spanning effort, the genome of the southern right whale has been released this week, giving us deeper insights into the histories and recovery of whale populations across the southern hemisphere.

Up to 150,000 southern right whales were killed between 1790 and 1980. This whaling drove the global population from perhaps 100,000 to as few as 500 whales in 1920. A century on, we estimate there are 12,000 southern right whales globally. It’s a remarkable conservation success story, but one facing new challenges.

A southern right whale calf breaches in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
A southern right whale calf breaches in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
University of Auckland tohorā research team, Author provided

The genome represents a record of the different impacts a species has faced. With statistical models we can use genomic information to reconstruct historical population trajectories and patterns of how species interacted and diverged.

We can then link that information with historical habitat and climate patterns. This look back into the past provides insights into how species might respond to future changes. Work on penguins and polar bears has already shown this.

But we also have a new and surprising short-term perspective on the population of whales breeding in the subantarctic Auckland Islands group — Maungahuka, 450km south of New Zealand.

Spying on whales via satellite

Known as tohorā in New Zealand, southern right whales once wintered in the bays and inlets of the North and South Islands of Aotearoa, where they gave birth and socialised. Today, the main nursery ground for this population is Port Ross, in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

Adult whales socialise at both the Auckland and Campbell Islands during the austral winter. Together these subantarctic islands are internationally recognised as an important marine mammal area.

In August 2020, I led a University of Auckland and Cawthron Institute expedition to the Auckland Islands. We collected small skin samples for genetic and chemical analysis and placed satellite tags on six tohorā. These tags allowed us to follow their migrations to offshore feeding grounds.

It matters where tohorā feed and how their populations recover from whaling because the species is recognised as a sentinel for climate change throughout the Southern Hemisphere. They are what we describe as “capital” breeders — they fast during the breeding season in wintering grounds like the Auckland Islands, living off fat reserves gained in offshore feeding grounds.

Females need a lot in the “bank” because their calves need a lot of energy. At 4-5m at birth, these calves can grow up to a metre a month. This investment costs the mother 25% of her size over the first few months of her calf’s life. It’s no surprise that calf growth depends on the mother being in good condition.




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Females can only breed again once they’ve regained their fat capital. Studies in the South Atlantic show wintering grounds in Brazil and Argentina produce more calves when prey is more abundant, or environmental conditions suggest it should be.

The first step in understanding the relationship between recovery and prey in New Zealand is to identify where and on what tohorā feed. The potential feeding areas for our New Zealand population could cover roughly a third of the Southern Ocean. That’s why we turn to technologies like satellite tags to help us understand where the whales are going and how they get there.

Where tohorā go

So far, all tracked whales have migrated west; away from the historical whaling grounds to the east near the Chatham Islands. As they left the Auckland Islands, two whales visited other oceanic islands — skirting around Macquarie Island and visiting Campbell Island.

It also seems one whale (Bill or Wiremu, identified as male using genetic analysis of his skin sample) may have reached his feeding grounds, likely at the subtropical convergence. The clue is in the pattern of his tracks: rather than the continuous straight line of a whale migrating, it shows the doughnuts of a whale that has found a prey patch.

Migratory track of southern right whale Bill/Wiremu, where the convoluted track could indicate foraging behaviour.

The subtropical convergence is an area of the ocean where temperature and salinity can change rapidly, and this can aggregate whale prey. Two whales we tracked offshore from the Auckland Islands in 2009 visited the subtropical convergence, but hundreds of kilometres to the east of Bill’s current location.

As Bill and his compatriots migrate, we’ve begun analysing data that will tell us about the recovery of tohorā in the past decade. The most recent population size estimate we have is from 2009, when there were about 2,000 whales.




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I am using genomic markers to learn about the kin relationships and, in doing so, the population’s size and growth rate. Think of it like this. Everybody has two parents and if you have a small population, say a small town, you are more likely to find those parents than if you have a big population, say a city.

This nifty statistical trick is known as the “close kin” approach to estimating population size. It relies on detailed understanding of the kin relationships of the whales — something we have only really been able to do recently using new genomic sequencing technology.

Global effort to understand climate change impacts

Globally, southern right whales in South Africa and Argentina have bred less often over the past decade, leading to a lower population growth rate in Argentina.

Concern over this slowdown in recovery has prompted researchers from around the world to work together to understand the relationship between climate change, foraging ecology and recovery of southern right whales as part of the International Whaling Commission Southern Ocean Research Partnership.

The genome helps by giving us that long view of how the whales responded to climate fluctuations in the past, while satellite tracking gives us the short view of how they are responding on a day-to-day basis. Both will help us understand the future of these amazing creatures.The Conversation

Emma Carroll, Rutherford Discovery Fellow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.