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Why we need a strong pandemic instrument to prevent future pandemics

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By John Scanlon

· 4 min read

Interacting with wildlife

Colleagues, health and wildlife experts have warned us for decades of the public health risks associated with people mixing with wild animals, including through habitat destruction, illegal, unregulated or poorly regulated wildlife trade, markets and consumption.  

But let’s never forget, that, when left alone, wild animals pose no risk to human health; the risk comes from how we, as people, interact with wildlife. And that’s something we can manage, but do we? 

No, we don’t adequately regulate these interactions. Our system is not orientated toward preventing the next pandemic. That’s why, in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime was created. 

The Global Initiative

Right from the outset, the Initiative, which I chair, has set its sights firmly on prevention. It has two objectives: firstly, the creation of a new global agreement to tackle wildlife trafficking; and secondly, for international laws to take a “One Health” approach to wildlife trade and markets, which is of most relevance to today’s discussion.

Our initial preference was to amend existing international wildlife trade laws – in particular the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – to include public and animal health criteria in its decision-making. It was, however, too big a step for CITES to broaden its scope after 50 years. Instead, we have focused on a new Pandemic Instrument under the WHO, one that is rooted in a One Health approach and directly addresses prevention, along with preparedness and response. 

To prevent the next pandemic, we need strong, globally agreed regulations on high-risk wildlife markets, and the international trade in, and consumption of, any wildlife that could pose a risk to public or animal health – including potential trade bans for specific high-risk species. Related to this, we also need to mitigate the impacts that such measures could have on those who lawfully exploit these species and to scale up our efforts to prevent and combat the trafficking of high-risk wildlife. 

International efforts

So, why is this conversation relevant to the work of the WHO? Because this is not just a wildlife issue, this is a human issue, it’s a public health issue. We know that the way we interact with wild animals has the potential to affect the safety and well-being of billions of people. But dealing with wildlife issues is not familiar ground to the WHO and we need to be active in making our case. 

The WHO is not the only entity that has taken an interest in this issue. Four international agencies have agreed to strengthen their cooperation and several multilateral environmental agreements have expressed themselves on the issue. 

In December 2022, Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, with Target 5 referring to “reducing the risk of pathogen spill-over”. Parties agreed that this Framework should “be implemented with consideration of the One Health Approach […] and aim to sustainably balance and optimize, the health of people, animals, plants and ecosystems”. The Parties also adopted a decision on “Biodiversity and health”, which encourages Parties to “further integrate the One Health approach” in their national biodiversity strategy and action plans.

We also saw some developments during the Conference of the Parties to CITES, in November last year. While CITES has no clear mandate on the issues, Parties adopted decisions through which they encouraged CITES authorities to contribute to efforts “to identify and reduce the risk of transmission - and spillover of zoonotic diseases - and pathogen emergence - from traded wildlife.”

A pandemic instrument

Any progress made towards adopting a One Health approach to wildlife trade, markets and consumption is welcome. However, while valuable, enhanced inter-agency cooperation and non-binding decisions such as these are inadequate for addressing the scale and nature of the risks we face, they leave us highly exposed to future zoonotic diseases. To give humanity its best shot at preventing the next outbreak, we need a strong, legally binding pandemic Instrument. 

Memories of the COVID-19 pandemic will fade with time, and decisions taken during that period may be slowly wound back. Human memories are short and we need to hard-wire changes into our international legal framework, right now, while the COVID-19 pandemic is still fresh in our minds. 

Colleagues, we know what needs to be done; it’s now a question of getting on and making it happen. We are delighted to join with you in this bold, collective endeavour to seriously rachet up our efforts to prevent future pandemics. 

This presentation was first made at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health 2023 Conference Session. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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