CORONAVIRUS, We Thought We Knew Ye! The Wuhan Potential Pandemic

Posted on February 18, 2020 by Nicholas Robinson

The novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has infected more than 50,000 and killed more than 1,000 persons across China. It has spread in France and England, and elsewhere. We knew “it“ was coming, but naively – if imprudently – we repeatedly hope to dodge the bullet. “It” is the class of viruses exchanged across species, a phenomenon known as zoonosis. These viruses inhabit humans and other vertebrate animals alike and each species can infect the other. Public health officials fear 2019-nCoV may spread like the pandemic of “Spanish influenza” in 1918.

It is virtually certain that humans contracted this coronavirus from another mammal, a Pangolin. Across China, wild animals sold in live meat markets convey viruses, having themselves been infected by other species like mosquitos or bats. Pangolins are an endangered species, still prized for their tasty meat and the supposed medicinal attributes of their scales in China and Southeast Asia. Similar patterns exist everywhere. Viruses, transmitted by bats, mosquitos, or other disease vectors, infect vertebrate mammals. In Africa, bush meat of monkeys, rats, fruit bats, and other animals are often infected with viruses from the adjacent forests. In South America, close human association with dogs and cattle brings on leptospirosis, which causes 1.3 million cases per year with some 58,000 deaths.

Such viruses “plague” us. The World Health Organization estimates that 61% of human diseases are zoonotic in origin and 75% of new diseases discovered in the last decade are zoonotic.  Examples of zoonotic diseases include rabies, anthrax, Hantavirus, tularemia, tuberculosis, HIV-1 and 2/AIDS, West Nile virus, Bubonic plague, salmonellosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, MERS and Lyme disease.

What would we give as a society today to have averted HIV/AIDS, whose origins are traced to chimpanzees in Cameroon?  Lifetime medical care for an HIV/AIDs patient exceeds $360,000, and more than one million people live with HIV in the USA alone.  International cooperation prevented widening epidemic of Ebola, which ravaged Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia in 2014, at a cost of some $53 billion. The Obama Administration invested $2.34 billion in successfully helping to contain Ebola. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged much as has the 2019-nCoV, in the live meat markets of China. In 2003, meat from a mammal, the Masked Palm Civet, sold in markets in Guangdong, China, was found to hold the SARS coronavirus. SARS spread to 29 countries, where 8,096 people got SARS and 774 of them died; it resulted in costs estimated at $40 billion

All zoonotic viruses leave the animal kingdom to infect humans.  Had society maintained the ecological health of wild forests, we might have prevented the viruses from leaving the animal kingdom. It is essential to confine these viruses to their wild habitats. Doing so is the job of park managers and nature conservation agencies. Once wild animals are taken into the human world, or domesticated, they become the charge of veterinarians and animal welfare agencies. Think of swine flu and avian influenza. Where endangered species are poached and sold, like Asia’s Pangolins or Africa’s Great Apes, there is an urgent need to educate the public and rigorously enforce unlawful trade in animals. Clear phytosanitary standards, with routine inspections, are needed. Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and trade (GATT) authorizes such prudent controls on trade to avert diseases. Endangered species laws need to be rigorously enforced.     

The economic tsunamis of zoonotic diseases, with their tragic losses of life, cannot be prevented by public health programs alone. Governments invest massively in finding cures to the diseases, and spend a pittance to preventing the disease vectors from infecting humans. Containing zoonotic viruses requires strengthening nature conservation and animal welfare programs. It is cost effective to keep the viruses in their natural reservoirs, in the forests, away from people. As Ben Franklin advised us in 1736, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Environmental law can address this imbalance. Zoonosis should be expressly considered in environmental impact assessment. Priority can be given to the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas or the only international organization focused on cooperation between public health, nature conservation and veterinary science:  the World Organization for Animal Health/OIE (see https://www.oie.int/fileadmin/Home/eng/Our_scientific_expertise/docs/pdf/Globalcooperation_oie1.pdf). Environmental Law can encourage inter-agency cooperation on human/animal health. The Wildlife Conservation Society has long promoted “One World, One Health” programs. Until governments recognize that ecological integrity is as important as national security, public health crises will recur.

Locally, reform of building codes can prevent transmission of such viruses. “Healthy buildings,” with ventilation and filtration systems of public spaces, can be retrofitted to reduce risk of airborne exposures of communicable diseases. See Joseph G. Allen and Joseph D. Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity (Harvard University Press, 2020). Governments need to prioritize efforts to sustain the ecological integrity of our local and regional parks and “wild” areas, to be vigilant to detect diseases, like West Nile virus, as viruses appear in our landscapes.

The “next’ pandemic is upon us.