History is repeating itself, albeit in novel ways. Novel coronavirus, believed to have spread from China’s Wuhan, has killed 494 people and has infected over 20,000 people across 25 countries so far. The virus is proving to be yet another zoonotic pandemic, transmitted from animals to humans, similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that panned out from China 17 years ago.
As the world prepares to fight against this deadly health emergency (as declared by WHO), the bigger question, however, is: Why are humans getting prone to frequent animal-borne diseases?
According to David Quammen, the award-winning author of ‘Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic’, “We live at such high densities and we cause so much disruption in diverse ecosystems that we will continue coming in contact with new viruses.”
Although there is no conclusive proof of the origins of the virus, many scientists believe that coronavirus was transferred from bats to snakes, which entered the human food chain through seafood. This takes us back to the origin of other pandemics like SARS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, and Zika virus. The rapid spread of infection has raised concerns on the changing climate and globalization as well as its effect on human-wildlife interaction.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times, the science journalist wrote that wet markets in Asia, Africa, and the US– especially in the densely populated markets, where the dead and living animals are sold in tight spaces– is one of the reasons for the current escalating pandemic.
China has a population of approximately 1.4 billion people. Wuhan itself is a densely populated city with over 11 million people, making the city prone to faster transmission of viruses. Moreover, the city has prominent wet markets, selling live fish, meat and wild animals. These open-air markets have served as the perfect habitat for the mixing of viruses spilling out of animals, dead and living. Experts warn that if these open-air markets are not closed, there would be more frequent virus outbreaks every few years.
Diseases have always traveled from animals to humans but the recent developments, especially in the past 50 years, show that environmental change has accelerated this phenomenon, resulting in frequent pandemic and epidemics.
Country of origin for recent pandemics
“When you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next one,” warned Quammen in his article.
According to a Live Science report , 60 per cent of all human diseases are transmitted through wildlife and animals. By 2015, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), originating from apes and monkeys, had killed over 1.1 million people, says a WHO report. The H1N1 pandemic- spreading from pigs- claimed over 300,000 lives in 2009-2010. Bird flu- spreading from chicken: dead or alive- killed- 60 per cent of those infected between 2003 and 2014, and affected 15 countries.
The more recent ones are SARS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Nipah and Ebola–all of them originating from bats.
Source: WHO report 2020
Coronavirus outbreak, too, is suspected to have spread through bats. According to research published in the scientific journal Nature, bats have the highest proportion of mammalian viruses and are highly potential of infecting humans. As they fly, bats transport diseases from one geographical region to another, making them the most efficient carriers of viruses.
The ongoing studies at the Wuhan Institute of Virology claim that the new coronavirus is more than 96 per cent identical to a bat virus. The virus also shares 80 per cent identical genetics with SARS.
Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist at EcoHealth Alliance, in an interview with Bloomberg, said, “As the human population rises, the number of those spillover events is rising exponentially. It is a direct product of human activity.” He also warned of more similar outbreaks in the future.
In light of such predictions, it is pertinent to ask: Is the world ready for recurring deadly pandemics?
To date, new coronavirus, SARS, and MERS are incurable. Since the new coronavirus emerged recently, researchers are yet to develop a cure for it.
SARS was cured without vaccination but coronavirus is being considered more fatal, with a 2.1 per cent mortality rate.
In an op-ed published with Business Insider in 2017, Bill Gates wrote that virus pandemics are one of the top three threats to mankind, only next to nuclear war and climate change. He further added that investing more in the science of vaccine innovation would significantly curb deaths.
As the world gears up to battle the deadly coronavirus, we need to see it as a single battle in a larger war against deadly pandemic viruses that threatens human lives and are interlinked with our environment.