DEAR READERS: Our fear-based attitude toward viruses and bacteria is based on our lack of appreciation for how micro-organisms function and help sustain our world. Parts of them are in our DNA and vital cellular content, and without them in our guts, we would die in a few days. They also can play an environmentally beneficial role in optimizing ecological biodiversity and reducing dysbiosis.
When epidemics and pandemics break out, there is always some ecological component and carrier agent, coupled with a lack of immunity in humans and/or other species who succumb to infection. Those species and individuals who do not succumb, and may show no symptoms, can still transmit infection to others. Of those who perish, some are killed by the primary infective agent, while others die from a secondary, often bacterial infection or -- in the case of wild animals -- become easy prey for a predator.
The disease caused by this new coronavirus has been named “coronavirus disease 2019,” abbreviated “COVID-19.” It is in the same “family” of viruses as the one that causes SARS, both having their origins in bats.
Live-caught bats for sale for human consumption in one of China’s open animal markets are the most likely source. However, other species may be involved, such as the highly trafficked pangolins, whose meat and scales are prized in Chinese folk medicine, along with the various parts of other wild animals, from rhino horns to tiger bones.
Bats, a sentinel species of ecosystem health and guardian of tropical forests, are the main carriers of these kinds of viruses, including Ebola, to which they are immune. So are most of the indigenous species who have co-evolved and co-inhabited their domains for generations of selection and survival. When people and their farmed animals encroach on these domains of the wild, they succumb to these so-called zoonotic diseases: The classic example of such human encroachment is sleeping sickness in Africa, which has affected millions of people and their livestock ever since humans began invading the domain of disease-resistant wildlife. But there has been no global spread because a fly is needed to transmit the disease, and tsetse flies do not engage in international travel or trade. With COVID-19, there is no such intermediary host-vector; it can be passed directly from human to human.
There will always be new diseases like COVID-19 emerging, and potential pandemics, so long as wildlife poaching, international animal trade and illegal trafficking continue, along with ever-increasing human population growth and habitat encroachment. All countries should be severely sanctioned economically for engaging in wildlife trafficking and for having open markets selling wild-caught animals.
Pandemics of swine and avian influenzas generally originate from open Asian markets and slaughtering in rural and poor communities, where centralized processing and cold storage facilities are not available. COVID-19 may be more highly transmissible than most influenza viruses, with its rates of morbidity and mortality yet to be determined. Individuals and communities alike can become immunocompromised in many ways. These include exposure to microparticle air pollution; telecommunication radiation; endemic nutritional deficiencies; environmental contaminants in water and seafood (such as mercury, fluorides and aluminum); and agricultural chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Richer countries like the U.S., where pork and poultry are dietary staples, pay the environmental and public health costs of these zoonotic diseases, with antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria becoming an escalating problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2019,” more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
The number of live pigs, goats, cows and sheep transported worldwide in 2017 was 30% higher than in 2007, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. International trade in these animals, dead and alive, should be curtailed as a public health service and for national security.
As for concerns about our companion animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association sent the following to vets last month: “Multiple international health organizations have indicated that pets and other domestic animals are not considered at risk for contracting COVID-19 or transmitting the virus that causes the disease.” But I would caution that the virus could mutate in the future, with a new form potentially being passed on to domestic animals.
If we fail to address issues of animal trade and trafficking and habitat encroachment, rich and poor alike will be subject to the indiscriminate justice of natural law until we all abide in greater harmony with other species and with each other. Alternatively, as the natural controls of biodiversity deteriorate, plagues and pestilences of biblical proportions will be the legacy of our collective failure in planetary stewardship, which surviving generations will inherit.
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