For much of humanity, the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines is the announcement of the end of one of the worst episodes in modern world history. However, specialists and researchers warn that this is only the beginning of a terrifying chapter caused by the hand of men.
An accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the aggressive and greedy destruction of wildlands, and warming temperatures have allowed diseases to explode in every corner of the planet, according to ProPublica.
Ignoring the connection between climate change and pandemics would be a “dangerous illusion,” one scientist told the research community.
And for specialists, this is a long-announced apocalyptic scenario.
The best example is the new Coronavirus.
As Rolling Stone explains, the Covid-19 probably emerged from the wilderness near southern China, then found residence in horseshoe bats before making the leap to humans. The virus has infected 63 million people and caused 1.5 million deaths worldwide, causing an estimated global economic impact of $8-16 billion by July 2020.
However, the human suffering that this tiny microbe has caused is incalculable: loss of loved ones, missing jobs, broken families, and persistent illness from a virus that will eventually recede but never go away.
And yet we got lucky. “It could have been much worse,” says Scott Weaver, director of the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, one of the top viral-research centers in the country. Compared with other pathogens out there, Covid-19 is relatively docile. It is an easily transmissible virus that is far more deadly than the flu and has mysterious long-term effects. But it doesn’t kill three out of four people it infects, like the Nipah virus. It doesn’t cause people to bleed out of their eyes and rectums like Ebola.
“Imagine a disease with 75% case fatality that is equally transmissible,” says Stephen Luby, an epidemiologist at Stanford University. “That would be an existential threat to human civilization.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is often compared to the 1918 flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide. But perhaps it is more accurately seen as a foretaste of what is to come. “We have entered a pandemic era,” wrote Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a recent article he co-authored with NIAID colleague David Morens.
The paper cites HIV/AIDS, which has killed at least 37 million people so far, as well as the “unprecedented pandemic explosions” of the last decade. It is a deadly list, starting with H1N1 “swine” flu in 2009, chikungunya in 2014, and Zika in 2015.
Ebola fever has been raging in large parts of Africa for the past six years. In addition, seven different known coronaviruses can infect humans. SARS-CoV spread from a host animal, probably a civet cat, in 2002 and caused a quasi-pandemic before disappearing.
The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus jumped from camels to people in 2012 but never found a way to spread efficiently among humans and died quickly. Now we have SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Although the reasons for this new era of pandemics are complex, one of the main drivers is climate change, according to Fauci and Morens, which is shaking up the natural world and rewriting the algorithms of disease on the planet.
Permafrost in the Arctic is releasing pathogens that have not seen the light of day for tens of thousands of years. The Vibrio bacterium that causes cholera, a diarrheal disease that haunted major cities like London and New York in the 19th century and still kills tens of thousands each year, thrives in warmer waters.
But the most significant impact may be on the emergence of new pathogens from animals. Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, we are forcing creatures to live by the climate crisis’s cardinal rule: adapt or die.
For many animals, that means migrating to more hospitable environments. In one recent study that tracked the movement of 4,000 species over the past few decades, as many as 70% had moved, almost all of them seeking cooler lands and waters. Some animals have made big leaps.
During this wild exodus, these animals are likely to bump into new animals and humans they have never crossed paths with before. Carlson, the Georgetown biologist, calls these events “meet-cutes” — random encounters where viruses jump species and new diseases are often born.
The vast majority of the new infectious diseases that have emerged in recent decades have come from these zoonotic pathogens, as they are called, with bats, mosquitoes, and ticks being among the most competent carriers of new viruses.
When they jump to humans, we get pandemics like Covid-19.
“It’s really a roll of the dice,” says Raina Plowright, an epidemiologist at Montana State University who studies the emergence of new diseases. By one count, an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, more than 800,000 could have the ability to infect humans.
“We really need to be prepared — both from a public-health standpoint as well as from a scientific standpoint,” Fauci told the Rolling Stone. “The way we are now interacting on our planet with the environment … will have a great effect on vector-borne diseases [those carried by animals like mosquitoes and ticks]. We’ve just got to be prepared and [understand] that this is something of our own doing. Some of it we can reverse; some of it we can’t. But] we’ve got to make sure we are aware that this will happen, and our preparedness has to be commensurate with that risk.”
With information from Rolling Stone.