A Pox on Them

For those of us somewhat tired of Covid-19, there is more depressing news. An article in Nature (605, 419 – 422) noted that virtually every viral pandemic that has occurred since the beginning of the 20th century was triggered by the virus jumping from animals to people. Now for more bad news: an analysis of outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the annual probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades because of human-induced environmental changes. We are doing it to ourselves! But wait: there is a fix, and it only costs the world around $20 billion a year, provided everyone cooperates. (Do I hear the “Good luck with that” comment?) That is asking for about $3 from every person, but given the way incomes are distributed, probably somewhat ore for those in the West.

According to Nature, that is small compared with the millions of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent as a consequence of SARS-C0V-2. It is also 1/20 of the statistical value of lives lost each year to viral diseases that have spilled over from animals since 1918. Yet interestingly the WHO set up a panel to consider what should be done in the future to prevent such pandemics, and in an 86-page report apparently wild-life got two mentions and deforestation one mention. Either the “experts” did not understand where these pandemics originate, or they did not care. The article suggests four actions are required.

Spillover is more likely to occur when the number of animal-human interactions increase, such as in farming, the trade in wild-life, or when forests are cleared and the animals no longer have their normal environment for living. The article suggests four actions:

  1. Tropical and subtropical forests must be protected. Wildlife that survives such cutting of forests includes the wildlife that can live alongside people, and they also often host pathogens capable of killing people. As an example, bats in Bangla Desh carry Nipah virus, which can kill 40 – 77% of the people it infects. These now roost in areas of high human population because their forest habitat has been largely cleared. Loss of forest also increases climate change. Besides stopping such climate forcing, it also stops driving animals out of regions that have become too inhospitable for them to stay. Once upon a time, if the climate changed, animals could migrate. Now their environment tends to be in islands, and if they have to leave, that is into human living areas.
  2. Commercial markets and trade of live wild animals must be banned or strictly regulated. Some progress is being made here. In China, the trade and consumption of exotic wildlife has been banned since Covid 19.
  3. Biosecurity must be improved when dealing with farmed animals. We need improved veterinary care, better surveillance for animal disease, improved housing and feeding for animals, and quarantines to limit pathogen spread. Up to a point, we have made progress here, in controlling mad cow disease, but more is required. It is important to stop livestock pathogens since nearly 80% of such pathogens can infect multiple host species, including humans.
  4. More attention needs to be made to contain early outbreaks, and that includes increasing people’s health and economic security. A big problem is that people in poor health, and particularly people with immunosuppression, can host pathogens long enough for the virus to mutate before being passed on.

If we could stop spillover, we eliminate the need to contain it. As most will recall, disease surveillance, contact tracing, lockdowns, vaccine development and therapeutic development are expensive, and unless done properly, ineffective. As most will realize now, the response to Covid 19 immediately ran into people who refused to have their rights infringed, in the belief they were young enough to get through it, or did not even care. “It won’t happen to me.” That caused 6.25 known million unnecessary deaths, but Nature estimates the deaths to be between 15 – 21 million who would not have died but for the pandemic. By 2025 we will have spent $157 billion on Covid-19 vaccines.

So, the question is, will we do something about it? My guess is, probably not much.

And no sooner did Nature publish that article and we suddenly found we have a new disease: monkeypox. Now guess where that is likely to have come from?