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PREVENTING THE NEXT PANDEMIC


The key subject of this article is pandemics. Now, I know what you're wondering right now: just stop talking about the coronavirus; no one wants to hear about it anymore. I fully understand, which is why we are not going to discuss the latest pandemic. Instead, we'll worry about the next one, which seems much less enticing, but now maybe the most important moment to do so because scientists tried to warn us about the "next pandemic" months before the latest one struck, only we didn't listen. Indeed, just after the SARS outbreak was suppressed 17 years ago, a leading scientist sent a chilling message to a tv programme, saying, "What scares me the most is that we're going to skip the next new plague, that we're going to have a SARS virus that spreads from one part of the world to another, wiping out people as it goes." I recognise that this latest coronavirus epidemic seems to be a once-in-a-lifetime calamity, but it is part of a worldwide pattern, as the overall number of infectious disease outbreaks has risen dramatically since 1980. SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, a string of Ebola infections in 2014, MERS in 2015, Zika in 2015, and, of course, the latest epidemic that we're currently dealing with are only a few examples. The reality is that if we don't take precautions, the next pandemic could be much worse. Viruses are now circulating among wildlife, and they kill 60 to 70 per cent of those who contract them. The virus that triggers COVID-19 may only be a warm-up act for the real thing. By some turn of the imagination, this isn't the worst that mother nature has to deliver.


Although you'd think the past year will have served as a wake-up call for all, experts on pandemics are pessimistic that we've experienced nearly enough. Unfortunately, despite all of this, there's a good risk that we'll wind up patiently waiting for coronavirus to dissipate so that we can forget about it and believe that it didn't infect the citizens around us. Let's worry about the next pandemic with that in mind. Specifically, where do new infectious diseases come from, why are they on the rise, and what can we do to cope?

Let's begin with how we ended up in the current situation. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by SARS CoV-2, a coronavirus that developed in animals before spreading to humans, which is not uncommon. Up to 75% of recent or developing infectious diseases are thought to have a zoonotic cause, meaning they started with animals. COVID isn't the only zoonotic disorder that exists. There are an estimated 1.7 million viruses in mammals and avian hosts that have yet to be found, with 631,000-827,000 having the potential to infect humans, and also mammals and birds serve as hosts for zoonotic diseases. Birds and pigs can bear influenza, chimps were the first to infect humans with HIV, and turtles can carry salmonella. Bats are one of the most popular vectors for virus transmission. Ebola, the lethal Nipa virus, and COVID-19 have also been attributed to them.

There are some reasons why bats are such good disease hosts. They have the ability to fly, allowing them to travel long distances. They've evolved specialised immune systems that don't overreact to infections, preventing them from becoming ill, and they're large in number. Bats make up a quarter of all mammal species on the planet.

But you might think there's a simple solution here, that we can only get rid of all the bats. That isn't a good idea for a variety of reasons. They play an important role in our ecosystem. It's also important to note that the fact that we might have contracted COVID from bats isn't so much their fault as it is ours because bat virus infections don't usually occur because they search us out. They normally occur when a human takes a bat anywhere it will never go on its own, or when a human enters the bat's house. That takes us to the first major thing we're doing, which is erasing the barrier between humanity and wildlife, which could very well be the cause of the next pandemic. Scientists have cautioned us constantly of the risks of deforestation, urbanisation, logging, and the overall eradication of natural ecosystems, which is much more widespread than you would imagine. We've modified more than three-quarters of the earth's surface, and the disappearing boundary has brought increased risk. Deforestation and land-use reform were related to over 31% of recent and existing disease outbreaks. For example, experiments in the Amazon forest have shown that clearing areas of forest tend to establish perfect habitat along forest edges for the species of mosquito that is the most common transmitter of malaria in the Amazon, or in West Africa, where the first survivor of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was a young boy who had been seen playing near a tree infested with bats before becoming ill. He lived in a small village where much of the surrounding forest had been devastated by international logging and forestry activities, and evidence indicates that this is what attracted the bats to his community. It's not just that we're getting closer to nature; it's also that we're putting wild animals into contact with us more and more through the wildlife trade. Exotic dogs are one of the ways that this can happen. Exotic pet possession has resulted in serious issues. In 2003, 47 individuals in six states in the United States contracted monkeypox, a disease that had previously afflicted humans outside of Africa, after coming into contact with infected prairie dogs bought as pets. The most well-known way for wild animals to transmit disease to humans is when they are sold for human consumption. Wet markets, such as the one in Wuhan, which may have been the COVID-19 breakout spot, might come to mind now. The word "wet market" is overused and often misinterpreted. Many wet markets are similar to farmer's markets in that they sell fresh meat, fish, and vegetables, and they can be important sources of fresh, inexpensive food all over the world, especially in developed countries. Some of those markets, though, export animals such as bats and snakes, and the conditions in those markets may be suitable for disease transmission. Pathogens can quickly move from one species to another and eventually to humans while wild animals from all over the world are held in close quarters with compromised immune systems due to stress.

And nations like the United States have been the epicentre of a risky activity known as factory farming. It's something that's grown exponentially since then, to the point where factory farms currently produce more than 90% of global meat and almost half of the meat consumed in the United States. In factory farms, livestock is bred and confined in such a way that viruses can easily spread among them. When all of this is considered, it seems as if we are deliberately attempting to start pandemics, which leads to the inevitable point. What can we do to avert this? The most powerful solution will be to shut down all wildlife markets, prohibit factory farms, stop eating beef entirely, stop erosion, and tear down all state fairs, but none of these things is likely to happen. Draconian solutions would not succeed in this situation. For example, eliminating wildlife markets could result in food scarcity, as well as the emergence of a black market for wildlife animals. We know this because China attempted a similar ban in 2003 in reaction to SARS, which isn't to say we shouldn't try to minimise harmful practices; we do.

Many scientists advocate for a "one health perspective," in which we understand that human, animal, and environmental health are all intertwined and consider this when making decisions on everything from environmental regulations to community development. There's a need for a lot of smaller solutions here as well, which would look different everywhere because, well, because everywhere is different. For example, in Thailand, farmers have had some real success in avoiding outbreaks by using an app to report any problems they see. Farmers now have a way to detect a potentially infected bird thanks to the app, which could inform wider public policy, and prevent diseases. Now, the scheme has proven to be a success, in part because it has protected people's livelihoods and aligned farmers' needs with the wider community's. Thousands of little solutions like that might end up making a significant impact. There's no question that all of this will cost money, and some scientists will be sceptical of our willingness to invest long-term in this. There is no guarantee that this would be inexpensive; one calculation puts the expense of global disease control at between 22 and 31 billion dollars a year; however, even though it were twice that, COVID-19 is expected to cost over 16 trillion dollars in the United States alone. That proves it's worthwhile.

That might seem self-evident right now. The problem is that as we emerge from this pandemic, there is a great risk that we will become complacent. So, for the sake of future generations, and most likely ourselves in a few years, we must consider how we feel right now and invest appropriately, because the fact is that we never know when the next pandemic will strike.