Spike in Amazon Deforestation Could Bring Next Pandemic: Experts
Thu, September 29, 2022

Spike in Amazon Deforestation Could Bring Next Pandemic: Experts


The mass destruction of trees continues to bring the worst impacts on our planet, from wildfires to pandemics. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate and it seems there’s no stopping it. A 2015 study in the journal Nature revealed that 46% of trees have been felled since humans started cutting down trees. The world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest between 1990 and 2016. One of the most affected ecosystems is the Amazon with 17% of it being destroyed over the past 50 years. 



Rising Amazon Deforestation

The Amazon plays a huge role in the carbon cycle and mitigating the impacts of climate change. In the 1980s and 90s, it absorbed two billion tons of carbon every year. However, that figure is much lower today due to deforestation. A 2019 study reported that the deforestation rate in the Amazon during that year was at its highest in more than a decade. The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) of Brazil reported that the forest lost 9,762 square kilometers (approximately 3,769 square miles), a 29.5% increase compared to the previous year and the highest deforestation rate since 2008.

According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, with the continuous rise of deforestation in the Amazon, scientists fear that a tipping point will be reached and the forest will transform into savanna. Current calculations show that if we exceed 20% to 25% of deforestation, the tipping point would be reached. Today, we are at about 17%. 

"We must remember that the Amazon has been undergoing deforestation for decades. We are approaching a potential tipping point, where large parts of the forest will be so damaged that it collapses,” Oyvind Eggen, the secretary-general of the Rainforest Foundation Norway, said in a statement. 

The Amazon isn’treally  helping in absorbing carbon emissions. In 2019, the wildfires in Brazil released nearly 392,000,000 metric tons of CO2. Researcher Carlos Nobre said that the strength of the Amazon to extract carbon dioxide is reduced to 1 to 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. 

According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, the total carbon emissions from last year's fires in the Amazon were equivalent to more than 80% of Brazil's 2018 greenhouse gas emissions.

"Each year is worse. We observed that this area in the south-east is an important source of carbon. And it doesn't matter whether it is a wet year or a dry year. 2017-18 was a wet year, but it didn't make any difference,” Luciana Gatti, a researcher at INPE, said.



Amazon Deforestation Can Lead to Pandemics

Previous studies have established a clear link between deforestation and the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, A good example of this was what happened in Indonesia. In 1997, the country’s rainforests were burned down, forcing resident bats to find food elsewhere while carrying a deadly disease. Two years after, reports show that 265 people developed severe brain inflammation, and 105 had died. 

Forest destruction leads to an increased risk of zoonosis, an infectious disease that is transmitted between humans and other animals. This is mainly because the contact between humans and wild species had also increased. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, deforestation triggers a complex cascade of events.  As a result, this creates the conditions for a range of deadly pathogens to spread to people. 

“It’s pretty well established that deforestation can be a strong driver of infectious disease transmission. It’s a numbers game: The more we degrade and clear forest habitats, the more likely it is that we’re going to find ourselves in these situations where epidemics of infectious diseases occur,” Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist at the Earth Research Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said. 

Thus, scientists fear that the rising Amazon deforestation can lead to the emergence of dangerous new viruses and bacteria against which humanity has little defense, leading to epidemics and pandemics. Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London (UCL), said that habitat disturbance, specifically the disruption of tropical forests, is one of the main drivers of the transfer of diseases from wild animals to humans. And this has been reported for many years. 

A research team, for instance, found that at least 60% of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated in animals. Thus, they concluded that animal-borne infectious diseases are an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security, and economies.” A study led by Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a not-for-profit organization based in New York, also discovered that approximately 1 in 3 outbreaks of new and emerging illnesses is linked to changes in land use, like deforestation.

A study published in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences reported that the wide variety of unknown pathogens in the Amazon resulted in Brazil being considered a “hotspot” for emerging diseases. This provides deforestation with a chance for new diseases to pass from wild animal populations to humans, like what happened in the case of the COVID-19 virus. Early reports said that the origins of the virus were traced back to a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, with pangolins trafficked from Southeast Asian rainforests being the main suspects.

According to Mongabay, a nonprofit provider of conservation and environmental science news, one way deforestation leads to the emergence of new diseases is through fire. A 2019 analysis of the impact of wildfires in the Amazon revealed that wildfires can trigger a selection for survival, which can change the habitat and behaviors of some animal species. These can be reservoirs of zoonotic bacteria, viruses, and parasites. 

“Wild vertebrates, particularly rodents, bats and primates, harbor pathogens that are novel to the human immune system and, if we clear their habitat and put ourselves in closer contact with them, we can increase the risk that a spillover event occurs, introducing a novel pathogen,” MacDonald said.