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Climate ChangeUnraveling the Causes of the Pandemic, and Preparing for the Next

Unraveling the Causes of the Pandemic, and Preparing for the Next

Creator David Quammen was well placed to see the pandemic coming: almost 10 years earlier, he had written a book called Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Covid-19, when it got here, didn’t surprise him: researchers had been anticipating a pandemic from an RNA virus for greater than a decade. But the shortage of preparedness did.

For the reason that Covid-19 pandemic struck, Quammen — stuck, like so a lot of us, in his house — hit Zoom and interviewed greater than 95 scientists and health experts around the globe. His mission was to trace the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, untangling the scientific hunt for its start and its spread and the event of vaccines to fight it. The result’s his recent book Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus.

Quammen has spent 40 years writing about conservation and sees links between the lack of habitat and biodiversity and the pandemic. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about what’s now known concerning the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the likelihood of one other global pandemic, and the trail forward.

David Quammen.
Lynn Donaldson

Yale Environment 360: In your book, you trace the scientific hunt for the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The primary, quickly discredited proposal was that it got here from snakes. Then the main target moved to bats, then pangolins, then a possible lab leak. Is there a final consensus?

David Quammen: There may be a consensus amongst experts that it got here almost definitely from a wild animal, almost certainly a horseshoe bat from somewhere in southern or Central China, and spilled over into humans, possibly by means of an intermediate animal.

There are still people arguing what I call the “nefarious origins”school of thought, which encompasses the concept that it’s an intentionally engineered virus, or that it was a virus manipulated for scientific reasons in lab, or that it was a wild virus brought into the lab and cultured and that by accident escaped. Can we know, absolutely, that this was not the results of a lab leak? I’d say we all know with 98 or 99 percent probability … You may’t persuasively argue or infer that this virus resulted from a lab leak until you place this virus in a lab somewhere. And there isn’t any evidence in anyway that this virus existed in any viral lab that works on coronaviruses.

We may never find the precursor virus of this virus, the one which’s 99.6 percent much like the unique Wuhan strain. We hope that we’ll. But that virus presumably exists in a horseshoe bat somewhere in southern China, and that virus could potentially go extinct before we discover it … It took 41 years to discover the reservoir host of Marburg virus. And for the unique SARS virus of 2003, it took 14 years. So when people say, “Oh, if this had come from a wild animal, we might have found it by now,” they really just don’t know what they’re talking about.

“It almost certainly was not only one animal carrying a coronavirus like this. It was a virus being shared amongst animals.”

e360: You cover one distinguished concept that there was nobody single origin of SARS-CoV-2, but reasonably that two closely-related strains (A and B) each emerged from animals at around the identical time and place — the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan (which sold live animals). This seems a remarkable coincidence to me — is it likely?

Quammen: It does seem a remarkable coincidence. However it’s not, in case you understand that viruses flow into from animal to animal on a regular basis. When you put an entire lot of animals of various species together in a wet market — meaning live animals on the market as food stacked in wire cages on top of each other — it’s just the best situation for the transmission of viruses from one animal to a different and from animals into people. It almost certainly was not only one animal that was carrying a coronavirus like this. It was a virus that was being shared amongst animals, probably across species boundaries. And people various different animals were all coming involved with humans. And that makes it seem very plausible that it might spill over twice.

e360: Or greater than twice?

Quammen: That’s right. As one scientist has said, “Spillovers are common, but pandemics are rare.” Viruses are continually spilling over from animals into humans, and most of them don’t cause big outbreaks or pandemics. Most of those infections come to a dead end.

There are large numbers of people that live across the habitat of horseshoe bats in southern China; in case you test their serum, they test positive for antibodies against SARS-like coronaviruses, they usually’ve never reported themselves sick or been a part of an outbreak. They’ve just been living there. And so they’ve been exposed to those viruses.

Live animals on sale at the Satria Bird Market in Bali, Indonesia.

Live animals on sale on the Satria Bird Market in Bali, Indonesia.
Amilia Roso / The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

e360: One other idea you cover is that the pandemic is the results of a “double accident.” Are you able to explain?

Quammen: To start with, there’s the accident of the spillover. A human comes into contact with an animal that’s carrying a virus, and the virus takes hold within the human and causes an infection. The second accident that’s required for a pandemic is opportunity for spread. So, for this virus, town of Wuhan has 11 million people; it’s a hub for the high-speed railroads; and it has a global airport. And so, in a short time, this virus was riding trains and airplanes.

At the identical time, there may be a pig-infecting virus that killed off a whole lot of pigs in China. This was a cataclysmic event for pork production: prices rose drastically, and folks were in search of alternate types of meat, including wild meat. This might need been an element, but we don’t have proof to verify that. And there have been festivities across the Chinese Recent 12 months in January of 2020. There was a community potluck in town of Wuhan involving [about] 40,000 families. The authorities let that banquet go ahead right as this virus was trying to seek out recent humans to contaminate.

e360: There have been two ideas in your book that basically struck me as frightening. The primary is that there are numerous, many more coronaviruses on the market than we learn about.

Quammen: Every form of animal, plant, fungus, bacteria, archaea has its own viruses. Viruses are in all places. They’ve been called the only largest repository of genetic information on the planet. Not all of those are potentially able to infecting humans. But a whole lot of them are. And we now have only this tiny sample of those.

“We want to make prioritizing decisions. Is it viral discovery and prediction? Or is it surveillance and response.”

e360: So, should we ramp up study of those viruses?

Quammen: There are two schools of thought. One emphasizes viral discovery and prediction: we should always sample viruses everywhere in the world from every kind of animals — bats, specifically, [and] rodents — and we should always inventory all of those viruses and take a look at those that appear to be they could have the ability to connect to human cells and make people sick. The opposite school of thought is that, well, you may never really predict which virus goes to spill over. What we want is a really, very strong system of surveillance and response. At the purpose after they are only infecting just a few people, we want to detect that with surveillance after which respond with ways of containing it.

It’s very essential that we do each of those things. But resources are finite. So, we want to make prioritizing decisions. Is it viral discovery and prediction? Or is it surveillance and response?

e360: Where do you stand?

Quammen: I don’t strongly, myself, argue either of those. I’m still listening. But I’m persuaded that surveillance and response is a sector that’s very, very underappreciated, under-supported, under-financed, and underdeveloped. What I mean by surveillance is, for example, routine blood sampling of people that work in big poultry operations, or on big industrial-scale pig farms, or involved with wild animals, even in the event that they’re not saying “I’m sick.”

e360: Does anyone do this?

Quammen: Yeah, it’s done in some places, but not nearly enough. I talked to 5 experts on this a few weeks ago for something I’m trying to put in writing right away. And all five of those people, all of them influenza experts, all said surveillance just isn’t adequate.

A makeshift Covid-19 treatment facility in New Delhi, India in May 2021.

A makeshift Covid-19 treatment facility in Recent Delhi, India in May 2021.
Getty Images

e360: Is there anybody place that individuals point to for example of excellent practice, similar to a rustic and even only a farm somewhere?

Quammen: If that’s the case, I haven’t heard about it.

e360: The second frightening concept for me is your description of the ‘sylvatic cycle’: the concept that a virus can cycle backwards and forwards between wildlife and folks. Is there some evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has gone back into animals?

Quammen: There’s a ton of evidence. It began early on, when some one who was sick with this virus had a Pomeranian dog and the dog tested positive. A German Shepherd in Hong Kong also tested positive. After which in a short time, a cat in Belgium; a cat in France; tigers on the Bronx Zoo in Recent York; snow leopards at a zoo in Louisville; gorillas at a zoo in San Diego. Mink all across Europe now appear to be infected with this virus. White-tailed deer in Iowa, in Pennsylvania, in Michigan are testing positive at high rates. There may soon be evidence that it has gotten into mice within the wild. We should always not be surprised if we hear that.

So there was a passage of this virus into every kind of animals. And that implies that it will probably also pass from them back into us.

e360: What can we do about spillovers from wildlife?

Quammen: It’s essential but difficult to curtail the trade in wild animals captured for food. It’s not only China where it happens, though. People say, “Those people eat bats. Those people eat chimpanzees. They’re bringing this danger of pandemics.” But in case you eat chickens produced in mass poultry operations and pork produced on factory farms, then you’ve gotten a bit of responsibility for this. There are 35 billion chickens on this planet. And that’s an awesome petri dish for the blending and evolving of viruses, including avian influenza viruses.

“When you eat chickens produced at mass poultry operations or pork from factory farms, then you’ve gotten a bit of responsibility for this.”

And if you’ve gotten a smartphone that incorporates tantalum capacitors, which all smartphones do, constituted of coltan that’s mined within the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, then you’ve gotten a bit of responsibility for this whole situation. [Those miners are] individuals who should eat bush meat with a purpose to have protein.

What can we do? Well, take into consideration your footprint on wild ecosystems.

e360: And what concerning the second possible issue: lab leaks. Did the scientists you spoke to think the regulations and enforcement are sufficient?

Quammen: The individuals who favor the lab leak hypothesis say, “Well, that is the results of dangerous, reckless, gain-of-function research [which intentionally makes a virus more transmissible or more deadly for research purposes].” It matters whether or not they’re right or mistaken, because there are numerous, many other scientists who’re saying gain-of-function research is totally invaluable, absolutely obligatory. It tells us, for example, about what avian influenza will appear to be, if it comes at us with the capability to transmit from human to human, which could kill 10 times as many individuals as this virus has killed.

A number of the scientists I talked to were saying that that gain-of-function research is dangerous, and it’s not adequately controlled by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or internationally. And things must be done about it. And they’d prefer to see changes. Their voices are in my book.

Minks at a farm in Bording, Denmark. In November 2020, the Danish government ordered that millions of mink be culled after the coronavirus spread to minks, mutated, and then spread back to humans.

Minks at a farm in Bording, Denmark. In November 2020, the Danish government ordered that hundreds of thousands of mink be culled after the coronavirus spread to minks, mutated, after which spread back to humans.
Ole Jensen / Getty Images

e360: In the long run, since each origins for a future pandemic virus are theoretically possible, does it matter if we pin down the precise origin of SARS-CoV-2?

Quammen: Yes, it matters so much. It matters that we try. It matters that we do our greatest to resolve the query of the origins. We want to know so we are able to sort things in the long run.

It also implies the project of responsibility. Are all of us chargeable for the spillovers that occur, a few of which result in pandemics, due to the way in which we devour resources that require disruption of highly diverse ecosystems? Are all of us responsible in a roundabout way for the situation? Or is it just those few reckless scientists over there in that lab that made that mistake? That’s a giant difference.

e360: I used to be surprised not to seek out mention of climate change in your book. Many individuals have posited that a warming world is a sicker world. Why didn’t this come up?

Quammen: Climate change is significantly essential in certain points of infectious disease, particularly vector-borne diseases, similar to dengue and yellow fever carried by mosquitoes, since the home ranges of mosquitoes and of ticks that also carry some viruses are advancing. However it’s circuitously tied to this particular coronavirus, which just isn’t carried by an arthropod vector.

“We’ve learned methods to make vaccines in a giant hurry. That’s been hugely invaluable.”

Climate change is one in all what I consider the three big problems that we face related to our own human impacts on this planet: lack of biological diversity, climate change, and the specter of pandemic disease. They’re interconnected. I feel of them as these three, big broiling brown rivers of trouble which are running parallel, with some channels interconnecting them, they usually’re all being fed by the identical source: an awesome big snow field being melted by 8 billion hungry humans; hungry for resources of all sorts.

e360: Did you see any silver linings in researching this book? Are we going to learn from our mistakes?

Quammen: I hope so. But I asked that of a lot of my 95 sources, and among the smartest and wisest of them said, “Well, I’m afraid you’ve gotten to count me as a no on that”.

We’ve learned some things. We’ve learned methods to make vaccines in a giant hurry. That’s been hugely invaluable. We’ve also learned that the abundant speedy sequencing of samples from different people tells us what this virus is doing and helps us cope with it.

e360: There are such a lot of things telling humanity we want to vary our over-consumptive ways, whether it’s a pandemic or hurricanes and floods. I’m unsure, though, that I see much change.

Quammen: I see some change happening. I don’t see enough change happening. But what’s the conclusion of that? Can we hand over? Or will we will we fight all of the harder?


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