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21 May 2020

The shield that guards the realms of men

The tainting of global biodiversity is closely linked to the emergence of pandemics. History tells us so. Time to learn to protect our best line of defence.

CEEweb Series: Silent Pandemic Spring (1/4)

By Andreas Candido

IN THE SPACE OF JUST a few short months, the world has turned upside down. Quarantines, lock-downs, disease, deaths, unemployment: you name it. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a staggering impact and more is surely going to follow. Yet, for all the coverage and furore surrounding the pandemic, relatively little has been mentioned on the impact biodiversity has had on the emergence of this virus.

Acting as a shield, biodiversity helps to maintain balance throughout nature and plays a role in regulating the emergence of COVID-like viruses. The majority of the initial cluster of positive cases was linked back to a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan, China. While the pinpointing of the Huanan seafood market as the exact intermediary location of virus transmission is surrounded by uncertainties and speculation, it points several crucial factors in the rise of modern epidemics: wildlife trade, destruction of habitats, heavy land reclamation and other unsustainable biodiversity practices.

This is the first article in a CEEweb awareness series which will closely look at the connection between biodiversity and long-term public health. We will show why we must immediately improve the state of biodiversity in order to avoid sustained long term health disasters.

The virus of today

COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus (named because of the crown-like shape that covers the surface of the virus). While scientists have long been studying coronaviruses, COVID-19 had never appeared in scientific research before, hence the “novel coronavirus” designation. Uncertainties exist around how the first patient — also referred to as ‘patient zero’ — contracted the virus exactly, but the most plausible theory is that the origin of the virus was a bat or a pangolin. Scientists are confident that it did not start in a lab, a widely-publicised conspiracy theory that has been disproven by microbiological research.

COVID-19 is believed to have originated in bats before transferring into a human — potentially via another animal, the Pangolin

That said, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which in short stands for a virus that jumps from an animal to a human. Zoonosis can occur in several ways: direct contact with an animal or indirect contact with its environment — including pet habitats, aquarium tanks, chicken coops and barns, just to name a few. This type of virus can also emerge through vector-borne (e.g. mosquitos, fleas), food-borne and water-borne methods.

Examples of zoonotic events through time are endless. Ebola comes from chimpanzees or bats; the flu comes from pigs and birds; and tuberculosis originated in cattle. The list goes on: the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which may have killed as many as 100 million people, is thought to have started when two different viruses — one in a human, one in a chicken — transferred over to a pig, where they combined.

The information to be concerned about: there has been a rise in the occurrence of these events since the mid-20th century. Recently, 100 wildlife and environmental groups sent to the United States Congress a letter warning that “emerging zoonotic diseases have quadrupled in the last 50 years, mostly in tropical regions.” Furthermore, a 2008 article in the academic journal Nature shows that over 60% of emerging disease events are caused by zoonoses. Their results confirm that the origins of emerging infectious diseases are “significantly correlated with socio-economic, environmental and ecological factors.” They also found that over 70% of zoonoses spread in wildlife.

The keywords here are in plain sight: environmental, ecological, wildlife. In other words, biodiversity appears to be a key player in this arena and, consequentially, should be a key pillar in all public health planning. Our unsustainable practices are directly linked to the rise in the number of zoonotic events.

A message from the past, ignored

With nearly 8 billion people on the planet — more than the total combined who have lived throughout the entirety of history — our levels of interactions with animals have increased many multiples. Even though a virus jumping into a human is an extremely rare event on its own, we exponentially increase the risk by our exposure to animals — even in high hygiene conditions. Furthermore, our destruction of natural habitats and other forms of biodiversity has created ripe conditions for increased transmission.

Wildlife trading means that animals end up in live fish and animal markets across Asia and Africa. According to scientists, this is essentially a breeding ground for viruses. Moreover, the breeding ground effect is exasperated by the tropical conditions which been found to pose a much higher risk of transmission, compared to more temperate conditions. Another Nature article, published in 2010, showed that since 1940 almost half of the new diseases that jumped from an animal to a human can be traced to land usage, agriculture, or wildlife hunting.

The link between biodiversity and the emergence of new diseases is strong; nevertheless, it is only reconsigned by a minority of people globally. This is symptomatic of wider issues in the public health sphere, where voices can often get sidelined easily. Scientific experts have been very vocal for many years that we were ‘overdue’ a global pandemic. International organisations, such as the United Nations Environment Programme, World Health Organisation and the Convention on Biological Diversity, commissioned a report in 2015, titled Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health, a State of Knowledge Review. The crucial report widely and deeply detailed the need to strengthen biodiversity to protect our public health.

Shamefully, these warnings have largely fallen on deaf ears. Decision-makers have reacted apathetically because biodiversity is rarely a pressing electorate issue, while the link between biodiversity and increased zoonotic diseases is not widely known. To put it more clearly: This is a poignant reminder that it has been a lack of interest in this issue — and not a lack of information — that caused our current pandemic preparedness. Or, better said, the lack thereof.

A virus’ main goal is to reproduce, which it can only do if it lives on. Therefore, the most successful viruses are the ones that infect you but that you barely notice, allowing themselves to carry on and spread undetected. If a virus is too severe then it will die off — or be killed off.

We snooze, we lose

Certainly, considering the aforementioned, the very scale of potential disaster is breath-taking. Dr. Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance, is one of the most prominent scientists working on virus-caused epidemics and disease ecology. In the Netflix short series ‘Coronavirus Explained’, he mentioned that, even though research into the many viruses that live in animals is well underway, the sheer number of unknown diseases is huge: there are an estimated 1.5 million viruses in wildlife that we do not know about.

Given that reality, let’s now add that zoonotic diseases especially thrive in more tropical areas, for they offer better conditions for zoonosis to take place. And while zoonosis events are actually rare, humankind’s ‘lively’ behaviour — population growth, habitat destruction and high frequency of human-animal contact — makes it way easier for them to occur.

Therefore, only through genuine, bold, decisive action can we start to truly untangle the web we have created for ourselves. And this where biodiversity comes as a must — no overstatement here. If we increase and preserve wildlife habitats, animals will have fewer interactions with humans. By doing that, an added benefit comes in the form of increasing biodiversity protections, which also play a role in regulating the emergence of viruses. Moreover, wildlife trading must also be dismantled. This can only be achieved through sincere international co-operation and tough new regulations — which, just in case is necessary to underline, need to be legally binding and enforceable.

The co-operation must also extend to further research. The current crisis has forced countries to spend vast amounts of money to expedite the process of finding and making treatments. However, more focus should be put on prevention, including setting up permanent monitoring schemes in hotspots, increased investment to help enforce regulations and support people whose lives currently depend on wildlife trading. Supporting the people and strong enforcement can work together – like the carrot and stick method. People care about the environment but if they do not have the security of having their most basic needs covered, then trading will continue underground.

Often thinking of biodiversity conjures thoughts of damage done to nature and animals, but we tend to miss the bigger picture of the more longer-term self-inflicted damage we are doing to ourselves with these actions. There is an urge to understand that there is an undeniable correlation between wildlife trading, the destruction of natural habitats, and the pandemics that have stricken humankind throughout history.

In Norse mythology, the Svalinn was a legendary shield which stood before the sun to protect the planet from burning. It was said that if it were to fall from its position, mountains would burn up and seas would evaporate. Currently, the world’s biodiversity is our Svalinn, protecting us from the zoonotic diseases that could represent our fall. It needs to stand firmly; its stance needs to be preserved. And only through significant progress in biodiversity restoration and a transition towards sustainable living can we secure long-term health benefits across the globe.

This article is the first of the CEEweb series ‘Silent Pandemic Spring,’ part of a wider drive to bring awareness to how our human-led disruption to biodiversity is strongly linked to zoonotic diseases. The series will move on to further explain this link which includes wildlife trading, food habits, habitat destruction, and what we can do to achieve sustainable results and diminish the self-imposed threats of viruses transferring from animals.