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What else is out there? Exploring the connection between biodiversity, ecosystems services, pandemics and epidemic risk


Wildlife microbiomes, whether symbiotic, commensal or pathogenic, and their potential to spread by crossing interspecies barriers, eventually reaching humans via transitional interfaces (e.g. peri-urban, farming areas), are still largely unknown. Complex links between increased human-mediated disturbance, land-use change, natural habitat loss/degradation/fragmentation, climate change and biodiversity loss have all been linked to increases in the increased prevalence and risk of zoonotic disease for a variety of pathogens, mostly driven by human activities that modify the environment or spread pathogens into new ecological niches[[Whitmee et al. 2015 and CBD SoK 2015]]. Zoonotic diseases are significant threats to human health, with vector-borne diseases accounting for approximately 17 per cent of all infectious diseases and causing an estimated 700,000 deaths globally[[IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services & IPBES The assessment report on land degradation and restoration.]] in a normal year, which can more than double in pandemic years[[In the first twelve months of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 2 million related deaths have been officially registered worldwide ( 19 January 2021).]].

The magnitude and direction of altered disease incidence due to anthropogenic disturbance differ globally and between ecosystems. Some described mechanisms and drivers that especially affect infectious disease risk are[[Patz & Confalonieri (2005) Human Health: Ecosystem Regulation of Infectious Diseases. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends. 1. cited in IPBES global assessment report, 2019]] habitat alteration (e.g. deforestation, urbanisation), depletion of predators, biological invasion, host transfer, biodiversity change, human-driven genetic changes, bushmeat hunting and consumption, environmental contamination by infectious agents, international exchanges, trade, etc.

This call aims to recover biodiversity and ecosystems services whilst predicting and preventing future pandemics and epidemic outbreaks, especially in tropical areas and biodiversity hotspots, through collaboration between environmental (including climate), ecological, biomedical and social sciences. Projects should map, identify and characterise (e.g. with molecular techniques) potential emerging pathogens and their hosts/vectors in both carefully selected natural and human-modified areas, explore the relationship of biodiversity and ecosystems dynamics with microbiomes’ evolution and spread, within the broader context of socio-economic driving forces, climate change, public health and animal health.

Pathogen discovery, prophylaxis and operational surveillance strategies should be developed to search for new potential pathogens, within natural and human-modified ecosystems and hosts as well as in cases of human infectious diseases of unknown aetiology, to prevent, detect and contain their outbreaks. Risk maps and predictive models should be built based on development trends, the presence of probable host/bridge species, environmental and socio-economic factors.

The impacts of land use and climate change on biodiversity, ecosystem services and pandemics should be also taken into account, as well as any recent IPBES reports on the links between biodiversity and pandemics[[IPBES (2020) Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics. Daszak, P. et al. doi:10.5281/zenodo.4147317 ]].

Ecologists, infectious-disease researchers, medical doctors, veterinarians, environmental, public-health and animal-health experts, socio-economic stakeholders and the private sector, particularly SMEs, as well as authorities, civil and political entities, should contribute among others to devise an early warning mechanism, track environmental change, assess the risk of pathogens crossing over and reduce risky human activities.

Efforts to preserve/restore biodiversity should address the economic and socio-cultural factors that drive natural habitat alteration and the rural poor’s dependency on hunting and trading wild animals. International cooperation with non-EU countries where new pathogens have emerged is strongly encouraged. Projects should ensure availability and interoperability of their data with the EC Knowledge Centre for Biodiversity and earmark the necessary resources for cooperation. Collaboration with the Biodiversity Partnership (HORIZON-CL6-2021-BIODIV-02-01) and creating links to its activities is expected[[]].

This topic should involve the effective contribution of social sciences and humanities (SSH) disciplines.