In advance of Earth Day tomorrow, a new issue brief from the Washington DC-based institute Center for American Progress says the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for broad policy changes to wildlife and land-use policies. Titled, "When Confronting a Pandemic, We Must Save Nature to Save Ourselves," the paper discusses some of the environmental and biological causes feeding the rise of zoonotic diseases, as well as the potential remedies going forward.

Speaking on a conference call with journalists April 20, US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, along with scientists and the center's Deputy Director of Public Lands Nicole Gentile, discussed the center's findings and its recommendations. The report ties the rise of "wildlife-borne diseases" to "increasing human encroachment on nature and a rapidly changing climate."

Specifically, the report notes:

  • three-quarters of the earth’s land area is now heavily altered by human use
  • species extinctions is occurring at almost 1,000 times the natural rate
  • the US loses a football field worth of open space every 30 seconds
  • 1 in 5 native species is at risk of extinction

"Right now, our national focus must remain on keeping American families healthy and financially afloat," Udall said, "but it is also critical that we understand the connection between the rise of this pandemic and the imperative of protecting nature. COVID-19 is not the first zoonotic disease to threaten humanity and it won't be the last."

Zoonotic diseases spread from non-humans to humans. According to CAP's paper, "almost two-thirds of all emerging diseases are zoonoses, and 71 percent of those originated in wildlife."

Udall mentioned the likelihood that COVID-19 began in a so-called "wet" market in Wuhan, China "where practices were illegal or condemned by international standards."

According to CAP's report, illegal wildlife trafficking has "created conditions for increased human contact with rare and endangered species, such as chimpanzees and pangolins. Chimpanzee and other nonhuman primate viruses are especially dangerous to humans due to our genetic similarities. Pangolins—the most heavily poached and trafficked mammals in the world—are thought to be intermediaries [from a bat] through which COVID-19 could have passed from a reservoir in bats to humans."

"And now this virus has spread like wildfire across the globe," Udall said. "One lesson of this pandemic: Protecting wildlife from illegal trafficking not only protects nature, it protects humanity. We must summon the necessary resources to stop the illegal trade of wildlife."

This will involve, he said, increased funding to US Fish and Wildlife, as well as more "diplomatic engagement."

Tom Lovejoy,  senior fellow on Biodiversity and Environmental Science at the UN Foundation, characterized the current pandemic as "the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade in particular," and noted that "on average, two new viruses are discovered every year as a consequence of our intrusions in nature and the wildlife trade and any one of those has the potential to turn into a pandemic such as we are currently experiencing."

Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, discussed how protecting the natural environment will also protect humanity. "The health of the natural world is our best vaccine…and our best long-term investment," he said.

The report also identifies loss of habitat and diversity as contributors to a rise in disease. For example, Lyme disease has risen as habitat has declined in the eastern part of the US for smaller mammals such as bobcats, red foxes, skunks, and opossums. In their decline, "white-footed mice have managed to thrive and turn into a potent reservoir for Lyme disease." Scientists also "linked the spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus to the decline in diversity of bird species in the United States."

In response, Udall and US Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, have co-sponsored the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature 30% of US lands and waters by 2030.

In addition to curtailing wildlife trade and protecting open spaces, the CAP report also recommends expanding local, state and federal parks and public lands. "The global pandemic has also made clear that our system of local, state, and federal parks and public lands needs to be dramatically expanded. In a just, equitable, and healthy America, every person and every community will have close-to-home access to open space and the great outdoors," the report says.

"Protecting nature is our first, best and most cost-effective line of defense against future pandemics," Gentile, who co-authored the brief, said in a statement. "By integrating stronger nature protections into the foundation of how we approach disease prevention and response, we can safeguard human health and strengthen our nation's economy.