Spreading out of a food market in Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as the predictable result of trade or trafficking in wild-animal meat. China’s epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 started the same way. Across East and Southeast Asia, markets selling meat from wild and illegally caught animals – most kept in appalling and dangerously unhygienic conditions – are literal breeding grounds for zoogenic pandemics.

But pandemics can also result from improper husbandry, when domestic livestock are not separated from wild animals, as well as from veterinary failures. These outcomes tend to follow from regulatory deficiencies, which are pervasive around the world, including in the United States. The H1N1 “swine flu” that killed 10,000 people in the United States in 2009 emerged from North American pig herds.

Like wildlife markets, these food production systems are breeding grounds for infectious disease. Packing thousands of domestic livestock together in a cramped space significantly accelerates the spread of zoogenic pathogens, thus amplifying the rate of viral mutations and the chances of a spillover into humans.

A final major source of zoonotic diseases is habitat destruction from logging, mining, and agriculture. All of these practices force many taxa of animals closer together, facilitating viral transmission and mutations.

The combined effects of these factors have dramatically increased the frequency with which zoonotic diseases are emerging, and their underappreciated costs are now coming due. The economic destruction and human dislocation caused by COVID-19 have already surpassed what one sees in a major regional war. In early June 2020, the World Bank warned that the pandemic would push 71-100 million people into extreme poverty. That may well be an underestimate. Around the world, many of those affected by the illness, lockdowns, and economic collapse have depleted their existing assets and are deprived of health care, food, schooling, and other means of human capital development.

Reducing the likelihood of another zoonotic pandemic requires eliminating transmission points where there is a high likelihood of viral spillovers, such as unhygienic commercial wildlife markets. Beyond that, governments must be more diligent about suppressing the illegal and unsustainable trade in wildlife and conserving natural habitats.

Read the full article about preventing zoonotic pandemics by Vanda Felbab-Brown at Brookings.