Rising deforestation puts Amazon at risk of becoming a virus hotspot
Increasing deforestation could transform this green lung of the continent into a new source of viruses that cause pandemics. This was determined by an international study led by UC academic Pablo Marquet and Mariana Vale from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The call is for the conservation and protection of these natural environments.
The Amazon Rainforest is at growing risk of becoming an Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) hotspot due to increasing deforestation rates, reveals an analysis released today by Conservation International.
The analysis, Could a Future Pandemic Come from the Amazon? calls for urgent action to lessen the chances that another pandemic-causing virus could transfer from wildlife to humans and emerge from the world's largest tropical forest.
The study and modeling were led by Mariana Vale from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and Pablo Marquet from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Eight additional co-authors supported it, including Carlos Scaramuzza of the International Sustainability Institute of Rio de Janeiro and Conservation International scientists Lee Hannah, Patrick Roehrdanz, and Jonah Busch.
Deforestation makes contact between humans and the Amazon's high concentration of virus-carrying mammals, like bats, for instance, more likely. The increasing risk of virus "spillover" from wildlife to humans makes the region, including nine South American countries, a conservation priority if we want to avoid experiencing another global pandemic in our lifetimes.
"We know deforestation is the leading driver of zoonotic disease, which is the spread of a virus from animals to humans. We also know the extreme loss of life and economic hardship that could occur if we fail to prevent the next version of COVID-19," said Hannah, Conservation International senior climate change and biology scientist. "Stopping regional deforestation may seem like a local issue, but it needs to be addressed by the global community. We know firsthand that zoonotic diseases can easily cross borders."
The paper highlights that even a small amount of deforestation – mainly if it occurs in pristine previously undisturbed areas – can have a disproportionate impact on the chances a zoonotic virus could emerge. They concluded this using a new model designed to measure the pandemic risk associated with a range of development and deforestation trends.
"The deforestation surge in the Brazilian Amazon in recent years increases the likelihood of a new pandemic rising from the region. The dire situation the region is in with COVID-19 shows how unprepared we are, at the moment, to deal with the emergence of new infectious diseases," said Vale.
Once a pristine area reaches just 20% deforestation, the chance a virus will jump to humans reaches its peak – meaning even a relatively low level of deforestation increases the risk of virus spread. Some regions of the Amazon that are already experiencing deforestation have less than 40% of their original forest cover and have already been at high risk of becoming an EID hotspot. Conversely, areas with low forest cover loss rates (less than 20%) will have a lower number of average spillover scenarios.
"The concept is simple. The lower the deforestation, the lower the virus spillover risk in the Amazon," said Roehrdanz, Conservation International senior manager for climate change and biodiversity. "Regions with higher population density and decreasing forest cover face the most risk. The time is now to lessen that risk. We need to integrate new policies designed to put global health and wellbeing at the forefront of decision making."
The paper shows that investing in preventing deforestation and maintaining a healthy balance between development and conservation in the Amazon would cost a small fraction of the potential economic damage from another future pandemic. The investment would also deliver the additional benefits of protecting human health, slowing climate change, and supporting Indigenous peoples' recognition and land.
"Not all deforestation mitigation strategies can be considered equal. Policies proven to reduce deforestation in high forest cover areas are the best for limiting spillover potential. Investing resources to support related efforts now has the potential to save trillions down the line," said Hannah.
Two key overarching things must happen to help prevent the next pandemic at its source - stopping deforestation and increasing community health initiatives that can positively change how people interact with nature.
CriticalCritical solutions from the paper include:
- Reinstate strong anti-deforestation policies in Brazil and other Amazonian countries. For example, in 2004, they launch the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon. This set of policies led to a 70 percent deduction of deforestation between 2005 and 2012. Reinstating a similar effort could have significant returns for nature and human health.
- Respect Indigenous lands and land rights. Indigenous lands are historically less vulnerable to destruction. Recognizing the critical role and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples will support global forest conservation efforts.
- Encourage global cooperation to prevent pandemics by stopping virus spillover from animals to people. Preventing future pandemics at their source needs to be a collaborative effort with all contributing to the preservation of nature. Proactive investments today will cost the global community trillions less compared to a reactive response later.
"Tropical forests are a great source of benefits for the global population. We should cherish and allow them to continue providing. Otherwise, they can become the source of our demise," said Marquet, professor of ecology at the Catholic University of Chile.
About Conservation International
Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships, and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries worldwide, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.