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HSPH Study Affirms Cost Benefit of Preventing Emerging Diseases

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the financial benefit of preventing emerging infectious diseases.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the financial benefit of preventing emerging infectious diseases. By Zing Gee
By Paul E. Alexis, Crimson Staff Writer

A study led by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Aaron S. Bernstein found that the cost of preventing diseases transmitted from animals to humans is just 5 percent of the estimated value of lives lost from emerging infectious diseases.

Bernstein — the interim director of HSPH's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment — and his team estimated the value of lives lost to all viral diseases transmitted from animals that resulted in 10 or more deaths since the 1918 flu pandemic.

“We chose to look at a century's worth of [diseases] to understand that these costs are not just one-offs. They're not, ‘We have a Covid pandemic and all of a sudden all those damages go away.’” Bernstein said. “We have ongoing losses every year, and diseases like HIV, which have persisted for decades now, have enormous aggregate tolls upon economies and lives.”

The study builds on a paper published last summer analyzing the financial cost of the Covid-19 pandemic compared to that of primary preventative measures.

The researchers used an estimated willingness to pay for life-saving measures to calculate the value of the loss of life. Depending on the country, the willingness to pay to prevent the loss of a life spans from $107,000 to $6.4 million. Applying this estimate, researchers found that the cost of deaths due to diseases from animals equals $350 billion to $21 trillion annually.

To mitigate these losses, the researchers suggest spending $20 billion on preventative measures, such as suppressing deforestation, surveying wildlife trade, and monitoring and suppressing wet markets.

The researchers said such prevention methods will have benefits beyond stopping new pandemics, such as biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration.

“The list of things that we've suggested are all things that we know how to do and have all sorts of other benefits,” Stuart L. Pimm, an author of the study and professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, said.

“It also has returns to the environment, has returns to local culture in indigenous communities, and it has returns to economic development,” Marcia C. Castro, an author of the study and professor of demography at the School of Public Health, added.

Bernstein also said these preventative measures can serve as “equity-promoting actions.”

“Vaccines benefit the wealthiest people first and the least wealthy people with the least access to health care last,” Bernstein said. “Primary prevention actions, on the other hand, benefit those most vulnerable first.”

Bernstein said it is imperative to take a preventative approach, rather than waiting to deal with the consequences of future diseases and pandemics.

“We simply cannot afford to take a post-spillover approach,” he said.

—Staff writer Paul E. Alexis can be reached at paul.alexis@thecrimson.com

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