The period at the end of this sentence can pack up around 10,000 of the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19. That is what one can call the smallest camp of the enemy in the ongoing war against the “once-in-a-century” pandemic. Since its outbreak, there have been many “firsts” associated with COVID-19 that explain why it is so devastating. All four pandemics in history have been caused by viruses, but this is the first to be caused by a coronavirus. This is also the fastest disease that became a pandemic—just 71 days—after its outbreak. We are overwhelmed by the ravages of the pandemic. The late microbiologist and environmentalist René Dubois famously articulated that every civilisation created its own diseases and epidemics. The COVID-19 is ours.
But is it just a health emergency?
Rather, it is primarily an environmental disaster that enabled a virus escaping its natural habitats and infecting humans. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, or a disease that transmits from an animal or insect to a human being. Humans’ interactions with its ecosystem, thus, are the critical factor in transmission of these diseases. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about 60 per cent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses. Zoonotic pathogens can be bacterial, viral or parasitic, with animals playing a vital role in maintaining such infections. Examples of zoonoses include HIV-AIDS, Ebola, Lyme Disease, malaria, rabies, West Nile fever, and COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the worst, but it is not the first, as Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP says.
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a list of 10 diseases that could cause epidemics, and all were viral in nature. Besides the usual suspects such as Zika, Ebola and SARS (triggered by a coronavirus), the list also had a Disease X, to be caused by an unknown pathogen. There is now a growing consensus that COVID-19 is Disease X. “This outbreak (COVID-19) is rapidly becoming the first true pandemic challenge that fits the Disease X category,” wrote Marion Koopmans, head, viroscience department, Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands in journal Cell. Peter Daszak, who was part of the WHO team that made the 2018 list, wrote in the New York Times that they had postulated Disease X would originate in animals, emerge at a place where economic development drives people and wildlife together, and go viral. The group predicted that the disease would be confused with other diseases during the initial stages and would spread quickly due to travel and trade. It would have a mortality rate higher than the seasonal flu and would spread as easily. It would shake the financial markets even before it became pandemic. “In a nutshell, COVID-19 is Disease X,” he wrote. This flew in the face of popular perception that the next pandemic would be that of influenza.
WHO tracked 1,483 epidemic events in 172 countries between 2011 and 2018. Nearly 60 per cent of the recent epidemics were zoonotic, of which 72 per cent originated in wildlife. Besides COVID-19, WHO reported nine disease outbreaks in the first 79 days of 2020. Scientists today know just over 260 viruses in humans, which cumulatively account for just 0.1 per cent of potential zoonoses. In other words, the world remains ignorant about 99.9 per cent of potential zoonotic viruses. We are yet to identify some 1.7 million viruses that exist in mammals and birds, and 50 per cent of these have the potential or ability to infect humans.
Globally, experts have identified seven anthropogenic (or, human-induced) driving factors leading to the emergence of zoonotic diseases—increased demand for animal protein; rise in intense and unsustainable farming; the increased use and exploitation of wildlife; unsustainable utilisation of natural resources; travel and transportation; changes in food supply chains; and the climate change crisis.
Climate change and environmental degradation are making matters worse as they help viruses mutate faster, thus increasing the rate of spread. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent intergovernmental body based in Bonn, Germany, warns that pandemics like COVID-19 would hit us more frequently and have a higher mortality rate.
According to IPBES, “Land-use change is a globally significant driver of pandemics and has caused the emergence of more than 30 per cent of new diseases reported since 1960.” “Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities,” says a research report of IPBES.
Human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss, thus, also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. “Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics,” says Peter Daszak, who chaired a IPBES workshop on the pandemic.
The growing demand for animal-derived food has encouraged the intensification and industrialisation of animal production, wherein a large number of genetically similar animals are bred in for higher productivity and disease resistance. Intensive farm settings cause them to be raised in close proximity to each other, in less ideal conditions characterised by limited bio-security and animal husbandry, poor waste management and use of antimicrobials as a way to counter these conditions. This makes them more vulnerable to infections, which can further lead to emergence of zoonotic diseases.
High use of antimicrobials in such farm settings is also contributing to the burden of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which itself is a chronic pandemic of high cumulative damage threatening public health across the globe. Moreover, loss of forest cover for agricultural purposes such as for growing of soy, used as a key constituent in animal feed, is also influencing the emergence of zoonotic diseases by increasing human access to wildlife.
However, prevention measures would be much cheaper than the pandemics’ economic costs. The current pandemic would have cost around $16 trillion globally by July 2020. The cost to reduce the risks of future pandemics would be at least 100 times less than the cost to deal with these pandemics.
By 2050, over 500 million hectares of new agricultural land will be needed to meet the global food demand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Ecosystem services worth $10.6 trillion are lost due to land degradation annually. By contrast, switching to sustainable land management practices could deliver up to $1.4 trillion in increased crop production. In the largest-ever global restoration initiative, in the last five years, close to 100 countries has earmarked areas for repair and restoration by 2030. A preliminary analysis shows over 400 million hectares have been earmarked under this initiative, which is about 80 per cent of the agricultural land required to meet global food demand by 2050. The restoration of these areas as part of building back better to avoid future zoonosis would bring other crucial benefits, particularly mitigating climate change.
(The article was authored by Richard Mahapatra, Managing Editor, Down To Earth)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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