Messing with Nature


I have been reading David Quammen for years, going back to the good old days of Outside Magazine. A while ago he wrote the book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, about pandemics. Needless to say, today he is in hot demand. He also recently wrote in the New York Times “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

 All I say to that is, “ouch.”

The nCoV-2019 virus was first isolated and identified in Wuhan China in 2019. The “n” in the name stood for “novel.” Now people are calling it COVID 19. It was found in a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan. I remember seeing such markets while I visited China. I found them amazing and disturbing. Probably that was because they were so foreign to me. I thought at the time that they had the strangest animals available for purchase for food. But that is all a matter of what we are used to.

Quammen reported how despite the virus’s name it is actually not as novel a virus as we might think. Something very similar was discovered by a group of researchers in a cave in Yunnan about 1,000 miles southwest of Wuhan about 10years ago. They noted its existence with concern. The virus they determined emerged from a “non-human animal probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.”

Zheng-Li Shi, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is part of a team of researchers, that identified COVID-19 was also part of the team that showed the SARS pathogen was a bat virus that had spilled over into people. “ Ms. Shi and colleagues have been tracing coronaviruses in bats since then, warning that some of them are uniquely suited to cause human pandemics.” They found that COVID-19 is

“possibly even more dangerous to humans than the other coronaviruses. I say “possibly” because so far, not only do we not know how dangerous it is, we can’t know. Outbreaks of new viral diseases are like the steel balls in a pinball machine: You can slap your flippers at them, rock the machine on its legs and bonk the balls to the jittery rings, but where they end up dropping depends on 11 levels of chance as well as on anything you do. This is true with coronaviruses in particular: They mutate often while they replicate, and can evolve as quickly as a nightmare ghoul.”

Researchers say they have been raising the flag on these viruses for 15 years. Many of them are frustrated that their warnings have been largely ignored.

Peter Dasak a scientist with a private firm, has said the research shows “these viruses are making the jump, repeatedly, from bats to humans.”

 Quammen drew the following conclusion,

“In other words, this Wuhan emergency is no novel event. It’s part of a sequence of related contingencies that stretches back into the past and will stretch forward into the future, as long as current circumstances persist. So when you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next one. Or do something about the current circumstances.”

Those “current circumstances” Quammen points out,

“include a perilous trade in wildlife for food, with supply chains stretching through Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent, the United States and elsewhere. That trade has now been outlawed in China, on a temporary basis; but it was outlawed also during SARS, then allowed to resume — with bats, civets, porcupines, turtles, bamboo rats, many kinds of birds and other animals piled together in markets such as the one in Wuhan.

Current circumstances also include 7.6 billion hungry humans: some of them impoverished and desperate for protein; some affluent and wasteful and empowered to travel every which way by airplane. These factors are unprecedented on planet Earth: We know from the fossil record, by absence of evidence, that no large-bodied animal has ever been nearly so abundant as humans are now, let alone so effective at arrogating resources. And one consequence of that abundance, that power, and the consequent ecological disturbances is increasing viral exchanges — first from animal to human, then from human to human, sometimes on a pandemic scale.

We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

 Quammen also reminds us of another important fact: that is that too many of us in the west, especially in Canada and the United States have erroneously believed for too long, that our continent is a fortress that keeps us immune from illnesses and problems that plague the rest of the unfortunate world. As Quammen says, the fact is that

“The distance from Wuhan or the Amazon to Paris, Toronto or Washington is short for some viruses, measured in hours, given how well they can ride within airplane passengers. And if you think funding pandemic preparedness is expensive, wait until you see the final cost of nCoV-2019.”

We don’t know what will happen. This too may pass. But we must be more alert to political leaders who cut funding for scientific research or disband important health teams in order to keep our taxes as low as possible. Low taxes are not always a good thing. Quammen has another important warning:

“We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.”

We have to be careful when we mess with Mother Nature. We have to learn to work with nature, not against it. We have to be smart. We have to pay attention to our scientists. When we make public policy decisions we have to be guided by the best science and not let it be overridden by what we hear from ignorant television pundits.

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