‘Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.’ Larry Brilliant, Epidemiologist
Running alongside our efforts to stop the pandemic and save the lives of people with Covid-19, scientists are also trying to pinpoint where the virus originated.
If we understand how the disease started and then spread into a pandemic, the hope is that we can prevent it happening again.
But two articles published recently – one in The Nation and one in The Guardian – make the very good point that trying to place blame on a specific animal is – in one sense – a distraction from the real problem: the way humans are encroaching on the natural world.
And if we don’t make significant changes to how and where we live, pandemics like these may be more frequent.
‘Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before.
They include HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses. The majority of them – 60 percent – originate in the bodies of animals. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them – more than two-thirds – originate in wildlife.’Sonia Shah, The Nation
Sonia goes on to outline how habitat destruction drives wild animals closer to human populations.
- Deforestation in Central and West Africa means bats roost in the trees near houses and farms
- It can also impact the population size of certain species – reducing the numbers of woodpeckers and rails, for example – thereby increasing the spread of pathogens among the robins and crows
- And how suburbs expanding into forested areas can drive out other animals that would naturally control the pathogen-infected hosts, opossums normally help control the tick population that carries Lyme disease
This is the root cause of the issue, and one that is also a focus for the United Nations.
Inger Anderson, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme told The Guardian that, while ‘the immediate priority was to protect people from the coronavirus and prevent its spread, our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss’.
‘There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not.
If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.’Inger Anderson
There is the widespread belief that the current coronavirus originated in a wildlife market in China. People have been wondering if it came through bats or pangolins. And while it’s true that many of the viruses linked to epidemics and pandemics in the past have typically been found in bats, the virus normally passes through another animal first where it mutates before being transmitted to humans.
Professor Andrew Cunningham from the Zoological Society of London describes these wet markets in China to The Guardian:
‘The animals have been transported over large distances and are crammed together into cages. They are stressed and immunosuppressed and excreting whatever pathogens they have in them.
With people in large numbers in the market and in intimate contact with the body fluids of these animals, you have an ideal mixing bowl for [disease] emergence. If you wanted a scenario to maximise the chances of [transmission], I couldn’t think of a much better way of doing it.’
While China has temporarily banned these wet markets and the farms that supply them, scientists want that ban to become permanent.
‘The good news is that, because we are not passive victims of animal microbes invading our bodies but fully empowered agents who turn harmless animal microbes into pandemic-causing pathogens, there’s much we can do to reduce the risk that these disease-causing microbes emerge at all.’Sonia Shah, The Nation
We need to support those on the front-lines working to save lives in the immediate moment. We need to invest in researching and developing vaccines and treatments for these viruses. And we should be funding projects that monitor the edges in our world where humans and wildlife cross paths to try to identify when these viruses make the jump.
But in the long term, we need to prioritise protecting wildlife habitat and re-design how and where human populations live so that they and the planet can stay healthy and thrive.
As Aaron Bernstein from the Harvard School of Public Health said:
‘The separation of health and environmental policy is a dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.’