Nature Just Put Humanity on the Naughty Step - but have we been here before and what will it teach us going forward?

You don’t have to care about animals, or even like animals but to prevent the next pandemic, you have to respect the inextricable link between the natural world and humanity.  So can our former mistakes ensure a safer future? 

The planet has been suffering at the hands of humanity for decades.  Climate scientists and wildlife protectors have been battling for a paradigm shift in our way of thinking but it has been a painful journey with limited success. 

 

Yet, in just a few weeks, a microscopic part of nature has felled long-standing social and economic norms teaching us difficult lessons with disturbing ease.  A stark reminder of our fundamental connection to the natural world.

 

However, a global health consultant called Alanna Shaikh warned a Ted Talk audience that “this is not the last major outbreak we're ever going to see. There's going to be more outbreaks, and there's going to be more epidemics. That's not a maybe. That's a given.”  Considering COVID-19 has yielded few certainties so far, such prophecies make for uncomfortable listening.

 

So what do we know that backs up these convictions?  A good starting point is to look at how Sars-CoV-2 or COVID-19 has infiltrated our lives.  Like a lot of coronaviruses, it is zoonotic, meaning it originates from a natural animal host.  This pandemic is, therefore, a direct result of how we choose to interact with wildlife and the environment. 

How Does the Coronavirus Spread?

Human behaviour drives all three interactions that spread COVID-19.  Firstly, when we destroy our natural habitats for agriculture, housing, roads and mining, we force wildlife into contact with humans.  Without governments making solutions such as animal bridges and wildlife corridors the thoughtful norm, it increases the risk of spreading viruses through unnecessary contact.

 

Spillover of the deadly Nippa virus in the 1990s was one such case.  This happened when Malaysian pig farmers and orchards encroached into fruit bat territory, resulting in contaminated fruit being dropped in pig troughs.  Shaikh states “so as long as we keep making our remote places less remote, the outbreaks are going to keep coming."    

Secondly, hunting displaced wildlife for pets, Traditional Asian Medicine or bushmeat is not only fuelling the 6th Mass Extinction event but opening up further avenues for diseases to trackback to humans.  Professor Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London revealed on Radio 4 that farmers are not only encroaching on bat habitat but that “people are hunting bats” for food. 

 

Importantly, the legal and illegal wildlife trade is unwittingly allowing humanity to dodge evolutionary hurdles.  Shaikh explains this will expose us to “new kinds of diseases: bacteria, viruses, stuff we're not ready for.”  It is not surprising therefore that 75% of emerging pathogens are zoonotic, but if we fail to legislate for wildlife protection such statistics could worsen.

Thirdly, wildlife markets or "wet-markets" are widely accepted to be a hot-bed of disease transmission.  Highly stressed, and therefore immune-compromised animals, are stacked in wire cages before on-site slaughtering.  Large crowds of people wandering through are then exposed to potentially contaminated urine, faeces, saliva and blood.  

 

Cunningham explains that these "wet-markets" create perfect “circumstances under which viruses are enabled to make the species jump into people.”  However, contrary to popular belief, these markets do not stem from long-held traditions but are instead a “1980s onwards phenomenon and particularly the last decade.”

Although the first cases of COVID-19 in China are no longer linked to the infamous Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan, the state media reports that 33 out of 585 samples taken by the Chinese Centres for Disease Control and Prevention came back positive for coronavirus.  Hardly surprising when they list an exotic melee of animals ranging from peacocks to ostriches, snakes, camels, porcupines and civet cats.

Have We Been Here Before?

TK. With world cases of COVID-19 surpassing 1.5 million and >100,000 deaths, we need to learn quickly.  Looking back at our past mistakes is one way to do this but have we ever experienced anything like this before?

Rather shockingly, this millennium has already witnessed two such coronavirus pandemics.  The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012-13.  Although the 774 SARS deaths might now seem paltry in comparison, researchers described the impact as “unparalleled since the last plague.”   

In both SARS and MERS, the natural viral hosts were traced back to bats but the "spillover species," the animal that transmitted the virus to humans, were thought to be captured civet cats and domestic dromedary camels respectively.  

Have Lessons Been Learned?

Yet despite learning this, civet cats have somehow found their way back onto the menu, being listed for sale at Wuhan market.  The Guardian reports  they were "still being promoted by government agencies" along with many other species on 20,000 wildlife farms.  With rural communities in China struggling, wildlife farming has provided a steady stream of income.

The quest to discover the COVID-19 "spillover species" is now underway with equal accusatory gusto.  There are no certainties, but  the science journal Nature states that a bat found in a cave in China “shared 96% of its genetic material with the COVID-19 virus.”  Although it could have infected humans directly, it’s more likely it was passed through an intermediate animal. 

There are growing fears that this missing piece of the Coronavirus jigsaw puzzle will become a patsy.  Sara Platto voiced concerns in the journal Nature, that 'civets were killed en masse after the SARS outbreak.'  Pointing the finger of blame at an animal allows us to avoid responsibility.  Platto emphasises, "the problem is not the animals, it's that we get in contact with them." 

 

Positive news from China's state-run media that the government is “comprehensively banning the trade in illegal wildlife” is offset by the fact it is only until the "epidemic situation is resolved."  A temporary wildlife trade ban during SARS "concerned authorities that the problem might recur again."  Sadly these concerns were proved to be correct.

Going Forward

It may seem overwhelming to consider future pandemics when we are in the midst of one, but with such firm predictions, it is sensible to safeguard our future.  Hindsight may have failed to prevent COVID-19, but a permanent wildlife trade ban is essential to socially distance ourselves from "spillover species." 

 

It is important to grasp that spillover events and not spillover species are where we should focus our attention.  The climate crisis, mass extinction of animals and viral pandemics are all a result of how we decide to exploit the natural world; without understanding, consideration or constraint.