Science Policy
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Preventing the Next Pandemics: An Upstream Approach to Novel National Security Threats

11.18.20 | 2 min read | Text by Alex Dehgan


COVID-19 is estimated to cost the global economy between $8 to 15 trillion USD1, but it is not the first such outbreak, nor will it be the last. Since the 1970’s, 70% of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) have been at the human-wildlife boundary2, with new infectious diseases emerging at a faster rate than ever before. Further, a common, defining feature of emerging infectious diseases is that they are triggered by anthropogenic changes to the environment. As natural environments degrade (specifically, due to climate change, loss of biodiversity and fragmentation of habitats, or invasive species), they are more likely to harbor infectious diseases and their vectors (animals or plants that transmit a pathogen)3.

This memo proposes a series of actions to shift the focus of our existing EID strategies from merely reacting to disease outbreaks – which is economically devastating – to detecting, addressing, and mitigating the major upstream factors that contribute to the emergence of such diseases prior to an outbreak, and would come at orders of magnitude lower cost. Recent analysis of the exponentially rising economic damages from increasing rates of zoonotic disease emergence suggests that strategies to mitigate pandemics would provide a 250:1 to 700:1 return on investment. Even small reductions in the estimated costs of a future pandemic would be substantial. This approach would have greater success at a much lower cost in reducing the impacts of EIDs.

The next administration should (1) launch a strategy aimed at strengthening biosurveillance systems at home and abroad through a global viral weather system for spillover, including harnessing technology and data science to create predictive risk systems; (2) eliminate existing barriers in international development and foreign policy between food security, global health, and environmental sustainability by establishing a coordinator for planetary health; (3) address and alter the incentive structures that facilitate spillover, and create new incentives for investments to reduce the risk for spillover through institutions like the Development Finance Corporation; and (4) through creating the world’s first climate & biodiversity neutral development agency, to ensure that our development investments aren’t facilitating spillover risks.