What hatched first, Climate Change or COVID-19?
As the famed novelist, Khaled Hosseini once said, “Nothing happens in a vacuum in life: every action has a series of consequences, and sometimes it takes a long time to fully understand the consequences of our actions.” Today, our world is more interconnected than ever before and this tangled web of relationships and exchange have a profound impact on each of one of us, the effects of that impact are only beginning to come into view.
At first glance, a forest is nothing more than a quiet space to reflect, a canvas for future design projects, or perhaps a place to work out and hike in. What we don’t see is the hidden world beneath our feet. A world as busy and complicated as New York City during rush hour. To some, making the jump a from a bustling forest to global pandemic might seem as cartoonish as the hoarding of toilet paper to my 2019 self. But like many other things this year, reality is stranger than fiction. To understand how a zoonotic virus crippled the human population across the world we first need to understand what created this perfect storm.
COVID-19, or the coronavirus, was officially described by the World Health Organization on February 11, 2020 as the disease causing the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak, first identified in Wuhan, China1. This disease was determined to be novel as it has not previously been seen in humans. Although the data is limited, there is emerging evidence suggesting that COVID-19 originated in bats before evolving in an intermediary host, such as the pangolin, before infecting humans2. As our world is seamlessly connected by travel, trade and business, it didn’t take long before an upsurge in cases and eventual deaths led to a global shutdown that created a multi-dimensional impact across all societies and economies3. This hugely preventable, yet inevitable eventuality created an urgency to advance sustainability efforts into all elements and facets of public health, disease, financial and supply chain management arenas3. Without carefully reflecting on where we went wrong and establishing a viable means of repair and prevention, we are doomed to cycle through this “new normal” we have created for ourselves.
To those intimately involved in the emerging disease community, COVID-19 came less as a shock and more of an “I told ya so”. The majority of new disease outbreaks in human populations have been the result of zoonotic diseases and this number has been steadily increasing4. In fact, since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, COVID-19 is found to be at minimum the sixth global health pandemic we have suffered, and despite the links of transmission via viruses carried by small mammals, like all pandemics, epidemics or endemics, its emergence is entirely people driven4,5. From a human perspective, one might think we under a synchronized attack by wildlife or foreign nations, instead of realizing culpability falls directly in our hands and has been for centuries. Human destruction is the main culprit and every day that we engage in thoughtless activities like haphazardly building up underdeveloped land or consuming farm raised animals we directly and indirectly increase the likelihood of pandemic causing pathogens to emerge. Over the course of the past century, we have used up half of the terrestrial surface and land use is only continuing to accelerate6. As humans manipulate rainforests and other wildlife refuges for commercial or residential purposes, the ramifications might not be immediate, but they are devastating. We know this virus is not the first virus to infect humans but are we bound to repeat history? Although escaping the era of pandemics is possible, it will not happen without a profound shift in our current policies that align profit and purpose.
The path to a pandemic is clear. Individuals have caused disruption in land use by way of the intensification of agricultural practices, unviable trade, overproduction and overconsumption5. We destroy nature, create a massive loss in biodiversity and clear a path for wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people to walk casually together, hand in hand5. A report from the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) states that if we wait until diseases emerge to react, we are already behind, to a staggering, life-threatening degree. By surmounting public health measures and pouring millions into technological solutions like vaccines and therapeutics, we are walking on an undefined tight rope with no end in sight. By focusing efforts on prevention, the IPBES reports estimate the cost could be 100 times less than building up another response after a disease has arrived5.
This type of prevention effort is known as the “One Health” concept developed by the World Health Organization1. They recognize that human health is reliant and directly impacted by animal and environmental health. Since we all inhabit this earth and contribute to a shared eco-system, this fact must be kept in mind during every stage of policy making and problem solving1,5. Efforts by just one sector will never be enough to combat a pandemic. We can look to our past to develop strategies for a sustainable future. We have precisely determined that our encroachment on nature increases the risk of a pandemic. When forests are destroyed for agriculture, farming or commercial development the wildlife that previously existed in that space does not disappear7. By removing the homes of bats, or mice, or chipmunks, we are creating an environment that maximizes the frequency of contact of wildlife with humans. Essentially, creating an entry way for zoonotic diseases to flourish7.
When taking stock of outbreaks past, we can look at what went wrong and where we went right. Take Ebola in Africa, for example, or the outbreak of Lyme disease in the Northeastern United States. Both were direct results of a decreased habitat for bats and opossums10. By removing the homes of the former, areas that were previously untouched or out of range from bats were now easily accessible to playing children. This entry allowed for a quick transmission of harmful pathogens to humans to spur a deadly outbreak. These disruptions in land use could have included the concentration or expansion of urban environments, and other activities8. The results of these changes are gradual and precipitate factors that speed up infectious disease emergence, such as pollution, poverty, and human migration8. These issues are significant and nuanced and have only been described for a few diseases like Ebola and Lyme disease. One of the results of forest fragmentation, urban sprawl, and biodiversity loss is linked to an increased risk of Lyme disease8. By removing the homes of opossums and chipmunks, we reduced biodiversity by eliminating the survivability of these animals in dense and expansive forests10. The once effective consumption of ticks by opossums and chipmunks was replaced by the ineffective consumption of ticks by white mice, allowing the tick population to run rampant and infect humans. We see the error in our responses as well. Instead of reducing habitat destruction and reintroducing biodiversity into our diminished ecosystems, human efforts went into Lyme disease research and creating genetically modified mice immune to this virus, thus halting the chain of transmission9. These efforts are outstanding and not to be discredited, but a better designed solution could eliminate the need for these costly and time-consuming treatments.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. These threats mirror our current threat of the coronavirus and possible threat in US agricultural meat production. By allowing open wet food markets to occur in densely populated cities or overcrowded antibiotic riddled animals to congest our food system, we are increasing our odds of pathogenic transmission via animals to the eventual human host, placing us in a never-ending cycle of reaction. Instead of viewing this as an overwhelmingly complex problem we should view it as an opportunity to fix a variety of systemic issues. Can we resist the temptation to jump back to our failing system as soon as the pandemic fades out and instead create the systems that the future requires of us? We might not know what microbe will be next but we do know places that its most likely to occur. We need to rethink our relationship to nature. As we take over more and more of the planet, we need to understand the cost we pay to animals, and the grave cost we pay to play ourselves.
- One Health. (n.d.). Retrieved November 06, 2020, from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/one-health
- Zhang, S., Qiao, S., Yu, J., Zeng, J., Shan, S., Lan, J., Tian, L., Zhang, L., & Wang, X. (2020). Bat and pangolin coronavirus spike glycoprotein structures provide insights into SARS-CoV-2 evolution. BioRxiv, 1. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.21.307439
- United Nations. (2020). “The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.” https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/launch-report-socio-economic-impacts-covid-19
- Smith, K. F., Goldberg, M., Rosenthal, S., Carlson, L., Chen, J., Chen, C., & Ramachandran, S. (2014). Global rise in human infectious disease outbreaks. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 11(101), 20140950. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2014.0950
- UNEP Annual Report: Letter from the Executive Director – 2019 in review. (2020). UNEP – UN Environment Programme.https://www.unenvironment.org/annualreport/2019/index.php
- Ritchie, H. (2013, November 13). Land Use. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/land-use
- Shah, S. (2017). Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Reprint ed.). Picador. https://soniashah.com/pandemic-the-book/
- Patz, J. A., Daszak, P., Tabor, G. M., Aguirre, A. A., Pearl, M., Epstein, J., Wolfe, N. D., Kilpatrick, A. M., Foufopoulos, J., Molyneux, D., & Bradley, D. J. (2004). Unhealthy Landscapes: Policy Recommendations on Land Use Change and Infectious Disease Emergence. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(10), 1092–1098. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.6877
- Buchthal, J., Evans, S. W., Lunshof, J., Telford, S. R., & Esvelt, K. M. (2019). Mice Against Ticks: an experimental community-guided effort to prevent tick-borne disease by altering the shared environment. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 374(1772), 20180105. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2018.0105
- Harrisson, T. (2020, October 30). Q&A: Could climate change and biodiversity loss raise the risk of pandemics? Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/q-and-a-could-climate-change-and-biodiversity-loss-raise-the-risk-of-pandemics?utm_source=Web&utm_medium=contentbox&utm_campaign=Covid-box