Risk of Bat Disease Spillover to Humans Is Small and Decreasing

(p. A15) The World Health Assembly in May is poised to divert $10.5 billion of aid away from tackling diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Instead, that money will go toward combating the threat of viruses newly caught from wildlife. The assumption behind this initiative, endorsed by the Group of 20 summit in Bali in 2022, is that the threat of pandemics from spillovers of animal viruses is dramatically increasing.

That assumption is almost certainly false. A new report from the University of Leeds, prepared in part by former World Health Organization executives, finds that the claims made by the G-20 in support of this agenda either are unsupported by evidence, contradict their own cited sources, or fail to correct for improved detection of pathogens. Over the past decade the burden and risk of spillover has been relatively small and probably decreasing. The Leeds authors conclude: “The implication is that the largest investment in international public health in history is based on misinterpretations of key evidence as well as a failure to thoroughly analyze existing data.”

. . .

It is a misconception that population growth or prosperity leads humanity to encroach on wildlife habitats. The poorest people in Africa encroach on forest wildlife by hunting for bush meat; when they grow richer, they shop for chicken or pork instead. Humans visited bat caves more frequently in the distant past.

. . .

The prospect of spending $31 billion a year on pandemic prevention, a third of which would be new money and a third diverted from other programs, provides an incentive for international bureaucrats to ignore or misrepresent evidence that the problem is small.

But a dollar spent on spillover can’t be spent on something else, and the evidence is clear that sanitation, nutrition and vitamins are more cost-effective ways to save lives in poor countries—from infectious diseases as well as other causes.

For the full commentary, see:

Matt Ridley. “Why Scientists Love Chasing Bats.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 7, 2024): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 6, 2024, and has the same title as the print version.)

The University of Leeds report mentioned above is:

Bell, David, Garrett Brown, Blagovesta Tacheva, and Jean von Agris. “Rational Policy over Panic: Re-Evaluating Pandemic Risk within the Global Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Agenda.” REPPARE Report. University of Leeds, UK, Feb. 2024, URL: https://essl.leeds.ac.uk/downloads/download/228/rational-policy-over-panic.

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