Even as COVID-19 cases persist unabated, a frightening string of monkeypox outbreaks has spread globally in recent months. Both pathogens are likely of zoonotic origin. One is new and the other is not, yet both viruses should give policymakers reason to act to end this “era of pandemics.”
As both COVID-19 and the current monkeypox outbreak illustrate, our ability to control viruses once they spill over to people is greatly limited. But the monkeypox outbreak is highlighting how even viruses we’ve known of for decades can surprise people.
As of June, more than 1,470 confirmed monkeypox cases have been documented in 31 countries outside of Africa, including the United States, Australia and nations in Europe. The World Health Organization recorded more than 1,300 cases and several dozen deaths in four African countries between December 2021 and May 2022. In the United States, monkeypox — most readily identified by the skin lesions it causes — has been detected in 15 states.
Nigeria recently took a bold step and banned bushmeat consumption to reduce the in-country outbreak. current several monkeypox cases outside of Africa have been traced back to travelers returning from Nigeria. We applaud the government of Nigeria for this swift action to halt further transmission of the monkeypox outbreak to save lives both within and outside of Nigeria.
But global collaboration is also crucial. We need international action to Ensure that any human exploitation of wildlife poses no risk of pathogen spillover to humans, wildlife or other animals.
A proposal with this very language is on the table as biodiversity negotiators from around the world prepare to gather in Nairobi, Kenya, this month. They will be discussing a framework to guide biodiversity protection this decade.
The deliberations are taking place under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has 196 signatories but is not ratified by the United States, meaning that Biden administration officials will participate as observers. The negotiations were meant to conclude in 2020, but the pandemic has waylaid the process.
Now negotiators at an international meeting have a chance to advance this proposal and strike an important blow for pandemic prevention.
Ensuring any exploitation of wildlife isn’t risky is crucial to keeping people safe. But this measure has the added benefit of aiding wildlife and protecting biodiversity. As more and more people exploit more wild animals and natural areas, we increasingly lose the biodiversity upon which all life depends.
As one example, monkeypox was previously reported outside of Africa back in 2003 because of the pet trade. The virus was imported to the United States through infected rodents. Used in the pet trade, the rodents spread the virus to pet prairie dogs who passed it on to people. Ultimately, people in six states — Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin — fell ill.
In the class of poxviruses or the Orthopoxvirus genus, monkeypox traditionally spreads through contact with bodily fluids — the virus that causes COVID-19, which spreads through aerosol particles. But the current outbreak has baffled scientists and public health officials because so many of the cases outside of Africa have no direct travel links to countries where the disease is endemic. As the poxviruses include the deadly smallpox virus, monkeypox requires careful attention.
The rapid recent spread of the monkeypox virus and its potential ability to spread undetected are both worrying. These developments signal potential evolution of the poxvirus. The ongoing outbreak is another poignant sign of our inability to control diseases — even those we’ve known of for decades.
People’s unfettered exploitation of wildlife and nature has consequences for human health. It means people need to adopt preventive measures before the next pandemic arrives.
The sooner we recognize it is human activities that are making us sick and risking our planetary life support systems, the better off both people and wildlife will be. All eyes are on the Nairobi meeting and the negotiations over the framework. This will be the last meeting before the 15th Conference of the Parties takes place later this year and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is adopted.
We both are in Nairobi. The conference’s requirement for daily self-antigen tests and mask mandate shall be a poignant reminder to the government negotiators why we must eliminate the risks of pathogen spillover.
The transformation needed to save nature and limit pathogen spillover will be challenging. But given the catastrophic consequences of this pandemic era, it is time that leaders recognize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Iris Ho is head of campaigns and policy at the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.
Tanya Sanerib is an international legal director at Center for Biological Diversity.