On December 10, 2019, a Huanan seafood merchant arrived in the city’s hospital with puzzling pneumonia-like symptoms. In less than two days, a variety of clinics reported more than a couple dozen of cases of viral pneumonia with seven of them being critically ill. Later, doctors at these different clinics discerned a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like illness in those people. On January 9, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a novel coronavirus case that had been identified in one of the patients. In late January, China abruptly closed Wuhan’s borders, and the WHO declared a global health emergency.
COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019) was finally named on February 11. Today, the world’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed three million after the virus spread out from Wuhan and exploded around the world. The virus several times smaller than a dust mote has gained a foothold and left no part of the world untouched. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 began its existence inside a bat and it might have jumped to pangolins, an endangered species sometimes eaten as a delicacy, and then to humans. Now, COVID-19 is believed to be a zoonotic disease.
When virologists decided to look in bats, which were known to carry many viruses including human pathogens, they discovered hundreds of coronaviruses similar to SARS in common horseshoe bats in both Hong Kong and in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located and COVID-19 later emerged. In 2002, the coronavirus that causes SARS had arisen in China and spread to several other countries within a short time frame.
The virus was initially thought to have come from masked palm civets but later proved by virologists that it originated in bats. But whatever the case may be most zoonotic diseases originate in wild animals. Some reports also suggest that deforestation may have driven the bats and pangolins to inhabit the same caves and this might have been a good opportunity for the SARS-CoV-2 to hop species. Other zoonotic spillovers like Ebola, MERS, AIDS are all also fallouts from disrupting the biodiversity equilibrium.
The biodiversity we are losing as we cut down forests and destruct habitats, mine, overexploit resources, pollute, eat and trade wild animals is an absolute recipe for slow rolling tragic disasters. In addition, climate changes stir up longer and drier summer seasons and these coupled with strong winds create even greater complexities of wildfires. All these anthropogenic impacts on nature have increased wildlife interactions with humans. A virus changes only through contact with another type of animal.
If it is not being transmitted as frequently as it should be, any potential evolution of new strains will not happen. When animals are taken out of the wild, a wildlife disease reservoir is simply transported. Creating new drugs for new emerging diseases is a laborious process and the outbreaks could unveil the chaos of mass death before the medicine could actually be brought to the market. Pandemics and the environment are far more intertwined than we think.
Well, you might ask, man has been exploiting biodiversity for centuries and this is no new but why has the number of zoonotic disease outbreaks quadrupled between 1980 and 2010? Man has been altering the ecosystems ever since he learned how to make fire. He has cut down trees on a large scale to make way for farmland and has been a remorseless hunter eating wild animals in the past. But he was not overwhelmed by the more society-wide, economy-wide pressures in the past like today and apparently was less greedy.
In times before globalization, even if an outbreak did occur, the geographic spread would not have transmuted into a pandemic since people were not on the move from one region to another much. As of now, COVID-19 could merely be a harbinger and humanity will remain vulnerable to a staggering array of infections. As we forge on in the face of pervasive uncertainty, canvassing attention for national and international cooperation for making a difference in protecting biodiversity is impractical and, certainly, it will not have an adequate response right now.
The picture has grown even grimmer with the global economy in freefall. The virus has also widened inequalities within and transcending political and national boundaries. In this time of economic hardship, any solution to our predicament that demands recovery by focusing on essential rather than growth-based overconsumption is scarcely achievable. So what really is the solution? We have come too far and it is too late. But our small efforts can make little difference.
The covid-19 outbreak is a stark reminder of what we get when we trade live wild animals in bushmeat markets. It is high time governments of countries with high biodiversity and high human density emphatically establish more stringent management policies and regulations to control wildlife markets and promote awareness about the difference between wild and captive populations. Efforts to maintain barriers between natural reservoirs and human society have to be made at the earliest.
The reputation of bats as virus carriers has put them at the risk of mass slaughter. Disrupting the food chain is again acting in a way that can make a pandemic possible. We are all grieving for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our country, and all the lives lost at the global level. What we are living through now will in itself be hard to forget. But when we find ourselves walking into a world after eventually throwing off the nightmare that is COVID-19, let us not forget that this pandemic happened.