Panel Considers Legal Means for Stemming Future Pandemics

By Richard Blaustein

April 9, 2020

Person wearing a medical face mask

The coronavirus pandemic underscores the need for a proactive approach that integrates ecological principles into the law. That was a central point of the “Pandemics Now & Next Time” webinar offered by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute (ELI) on March 30. Moderated by Pace University environmental law professor Nicholas A. Robinson, the webinar also emphasized that legal tools and principles already on hand can help address pandemics caused by a zoonosis, a disease that stems from pathogens jumping from animals to humans, as with the COVID-19 disease. 

“Coping with zoonosis is our focus of today’s program,” Robinson said in his opening remarks. “We can know how to live healthy lives as humans amidst the myriad relationships with natural systems that we find ourselves in, including all the viruses that are around us. Ecology and virology can help inform environmental policy and law.”

Chris Walzer, executive director of wildlife health at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that huge transformations caused by humans, such as natural habitat loss, are fostering a “breach at the interface between humans and nature” and seriously impacting the well-being of humans, animals, plants, and their environments. Walzer said there is general scientific consensus that the ancestral host of this coronavirus was likely a horseshoe bat species of southern China and Southeast Asia, and that this current zoonotic “spillover” is associated with the wildlife trade market in Wuhan, China. 

There is still a lot of uncertainty, Walzer added, but “the scenario of a spillover in the wildlife trade aligns with the other zoonotic spillover” of the SARS-coronavirus outbreak of the early 2000s. Walzer also emphasized that serious pathogen spillovers occur from human communities with domestic livestock to other species; for example, the PPRV virus affecting goat and sheep impacted wildlife globally. Furthermore, human encroachments on the environment other than wildlife trade also can be vectors for zoonotic diseases. 

Pertinent to the work of lawyers hoping to contribute to the pandemic front, Walzer and Robertson both highlighted the Berlin Principles that were produced by the One Planet, One Health, One Future conference led by the German government and the Wildlife Conservation Society in October 2019. The Berlin Principles built on the 2004 Manhattan Principles pertaining to animal–human disease transmissions, but, according to Walzer, the Berlin Principles have stronger ecosystem and conservation stipulations.

ELI visiting scholar Claudia de Windt spoke about strengthening the environmental rule of law in a context of rampant environmental crime, which, according to de Windt, is the fourth largest illicit market and encompasses illegal wildlife trade. Noting that there are many laws on the books globally that focus on protecting natural places, de Windt said enforcement is difficult. Prosecutors are underbudgeted, and guards and others who protect wildlife often become the victims of violence.  

“We are not at a time for deregulation; we are at a time for holistic approaches and solidarity,” and principles like the Berlin Principles “play a key role in the internalization by all stakeholders of what needs to be done,” de Windt said. 

D.C. Bar member Mary Ellen Ternes of Earth & Water Law LLC in Oklahoma City, spoke on disaster preparedness at the national level. It is an especially difficult time for the regulated community with no vaccine available for workers, Ternes said, but preparedness plans for all sorts of disasters are in place. Ternes added, however, that “the troubling part here and the part that could benefit from closer coordination and learning more about these emerging novel viruses is how the transmission of the virus may differ from one pandemic to the next.” 

Speaking to the D.C. Bar after the webinar, de Windt said that nations now must manage having a “risk society.” “The job of environmental law in principle is to study those risks and the scientific facts, understand the limits of those environmental problems, and respond and generate new solutions to the social demands that we have,” she said. 

Moving from a reactive to an anticipatory orientation is challenging but possible, and de Windt cited as positive examples the recent Chinese governmental decision to implement a wildlife trade ban and the 2020 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity as certainly integrating urgent pandemic concerns to the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. 

“It is a time of rethinking and paying attention to the human-ecology balance and to our common approach as a society to these issues,” de Windt said.