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COVID-19: Bio-Weapon Or Zoonotic Disease From Destroyed Biodiversity? – Analysis

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Humans, when faced with a life-threatening situation they are unprepared for, often resort to a blame-game. Nations faced with a prospect of a fall from power do the same. We have thus been seeing this “deny-deflect-blame” game as well as decoupling among nations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Epidemics and pandemics are, however, not new. And while the latest SARS-CoV-2 virus has undoubtedly come out of Wuhan’s “wet market”, the SAR-CoV-2 virus is neither the outcome of biological warfare nor has the COVID-19 pandemic been “exported” deliberately as part of some “world domination” plan. Instead, as a recent study by the University of California, Davis’ One Health Institute suggests, zoonotic diseases – like Ebola, Bird Flu, Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus, Zika virus, SARS (Sars-CoV virus), MERS (Mers-Cov), and now COVID-19 (Sars-CoV-2) – are connected to degradation of the environmental by humans.  

Increase in Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases are passed by animals to humans. Although such viruses have existed in animals for ages, since the virus and its original host evolved together, the species had time to build up resistance. And when viruses jump to a new host, a process called zoonosis, they often cause more severe disease as the new host species (e.g. humans) is unlikely to have an evolved ability to tackle the virus. 

After mankind started domesticating animals, livestock began sharing a number of viruses with humans; but over a period of time, we developed some sort of immunity to them. The danger now lies in viruses crossing over from wild animals. We have killed off a large number of species, damaged bio-diversity and accelerated climate change through human overpopulation; large-scale deforestation to expand farmland, infrastructure and living spaces; rapid industrialization; resource-exploitation; overconsumption; and the quests for ‘luxurious lifestyles’ especially by the rich.(1)

And as human activity pushes the boundaries of the remaining wild places on Earth, species that evolved separately are now mixing with each other, as well as crops, livestock and people. Thus, almost half of the zoonotic pathogens after 1940 can be traced to changes in land use, agriculture, or wildlife hunting.(2)

The three most deadly killer pandemics of this century are new coronaviruses which jumped from wild animals to humans. SARS jumped from bats to humans via an intermediary mammal (possibly civet cats), and MERS came from dromedary camels. The SARS-Cov-2 virus appears to be a recombination between two different viruses.

Research suggests that these viruses are just the vanguard of many in waiting. According to a study by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, and Dennis Carroll, former director of the US Agency for International Development’s pandemic influenza and emerging threats unit, there are an estimated 1.7 million unknown viruses in animals, of which over half a million have the potential to cause human disease.

Expansion of Human Population and the Increasing Pressure on Earth’s Resources

Modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago by chance after about 4.5 billion years of Earth history.(3) When they started migrating about 100,000 years back, human population was less than one million. Population growth picked up with farming, and by 1 A.D, the world population reached around 300 million. The Industrial Age led to the invention of the railway engine, the automobile and various types of machines. Together, these facilitated easier mobility on land, sea and air, as well as mass exploitation of the Earth’s resources. By around 1830 A.D, population increased to about one billion; in 1960 it touched three billion and then more than doubled by 2019 to 7.7 billion (4).  In sum: it took about 200,000 years for human population to reach one billion – and just around 200 years to reach from 1 billion to 7.76 billion. 

As human population grew, so did the scale of the human enterprise. Human dietary requirements and preferences have improved; and people are seeking lifestyles with more style and entertainment, and greater luxury and comfort. Governments are also seeking greater GDPs in order to pull more people out of poverty as also provide better facilities to their populations.

With exploitation of the Earth’s resources increasing exponentially, we are also polluting resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished. Current assessments indicate that overall, (i) humans are consuming over 50% of the total net biological productivity on land and 50% of the available supply of freshwater (5); and (ii) 50% of the planet’s land mass has been transformed for human use, with 37-40% of the planet’s land being devoted to human food production or pastures (6). This wanton exploitation is generating a number of direct as well as second-order effects, which include global warming, climate change, extreme weather, destruction of habitats, and mass extinction of some species. 

Mass Extinctions of Species and Destruction of Bio-Diversity

Extinction of species is inevitable in evolution and is a natural, on-going phenomenon. Paleontologists estimate that most species last between 01 to 10 million years, with about 01 to 10 species going extinct each year at a natural, normal background rate of 0.00001% to 0.0001% per year.  In addition are mass extinctions, which paleontologists define as the loss of at least 75 percent of Earth’s species in a geologic short interval. The Earth has witnessed five cataclysmic mass extinctions in the past half-billion years (8): 

EventApproximate Period
Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event65 million years ago
Triassic–Jurassic extinction event199 million to 214 million years ago
Permian–Triassic extinction event251 million years ago
Late Devonian extinction364 million years ago
Ordovician–Silurian extinction events439 million years ago

Currently, we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction (SME). But there is an important difference between what caused the ‘Big 5” in the past, and the ongoing, cataclysmic, SME event (9). The ‘Big 5’ were caused by climatic or planetary or galactic physical processes (e.g. climate change, an intense ice age, severe volcanic eruptions, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth).  However, SME, with extinction rates of animals and plants at least a hundred times higher than the normal ‘background’ rate, is being exclusively driven by a single species – humans. The over-abundance of human population, hunting, industrialization, resource-exploitation, and overconsumption of the Earth’s resources is leading not only to global warming and climate change, but also to destruction of bio-spheres and natural habitats.  

Humans and Species Extinction Crisis

There is a clear, direct link between the increase in human population and extinction of species. The 2016 Living Planet Index lists that in just 42 years (1970 to 2012), the global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by about 58%. Since a reduction in the species’ population is a prelude to species extinction, at the current rate of decline, 30% to 50% of all animal and plant species may be extinct within the next few decades (10).

The 2017 report by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (11) adds that “…habitat loss, over-exploitation, … climate disruption, … have led to catastrophic declines in both the numbers and sizes of populations of both common and rare vertebrate species ……. loss of biological diversity is one of the most severe human caused global environmental problems …. we are losing intricate ecological networks involving animals, plants, and microorganisms ….pools of genetic information that may prove vital to species’ evolutionary adjustment and survival”. 

The study notes that although humans represent just 0.01% of the total biomass on Earth (82% – plants; 13% – bacteria; 5% – everything else including humans), they are responsible for the loss of 83% of all wild animals and half of all plants, with nearly half of Earth’s animals being lost in the last 50 years; and that farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on Earth, with just 30% of birds being wild; and 60% of all mammals are livestock (balance 40%: wild animals – 4%; humans – 36%). 

Implications – Species Reduction and Loss of Bio-diversity

There are both direct and indirect effects of such population extinctions and loss of bio-diversity. For example: bees help pollinate 35% of the world’s food – and their reduction will impinge on global food availability. Indirectly, species diversity helps ensure that our ecosystem remains resilient and able to withstand stress through “survival of the fittest” – most species are linked to each other in a complex ecological web and some serve as buffers between humans and some dangerous pathogens (12). 

Population declines are also leading to threatened and endangered species. These tend to be directly managed and monitored by humans striving for their recovery, which in turn puts them into greater contact with people. With humans no longer maintaining a “social distance” from wildlife in the wild, once the virus jumps from an animal to a human, globe-spanning transport networks and megacities quickly facilitate a pandemic. Christine Kreuder Johnson, project director of USAID PREDICT and director of the EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, adds that “spillover of viruses from animals is a direct result of our actions involving wildlife and their habitat.” 

There are human and economic costs to such pandemics. Organizations such as Zoological Society of London point out that zoonotic diseases are responsible for over 2 billion cases of human illness and over 2 million human deaths each year. The UNEP’s Frontiers 2016 Report on Emerging Issues of Environment Concern outlined that in the last two decades, emerging diseases have inflicted direct costs of over US$100 billion. UNCTAD estimates that COVID-19 will cost the world at least US$ 1 trillion. 

What We Can Do

One:  The world is trying to find solutions to a pandemic whose origins are just months old. And the decisions leaders take in the next few weeks will shape their nations and the world. If few nations are individually successful in defeating the SAR-Cov-2 virus through nationalist isolation and resource-grabbing, they yet won’t be able to solve the problem of reinfection/recurrence given the levels of globalization and inter-dependencies. To the virus, the entire human race is prey. Thus, rather than squabble, there is a need to collaborate, share information, advice and resources in order to attain global control over this pandemic, evolve global protocols, then work on economic revival. 

Two:  It’s evident that the world is not going to go back to pre-2020 practices, economic styles and social mores. Hence, this is a good time to examine, evolve and adopt sustainable models. 

Three:  Urgently address the multiple, inter-acting threats to ecosystems and wildlife to prevent zoonoses from emerging. While short-term gains from deforestation and biosphere encroachment are high, they are overwhelmed in the mid- and long-term by expenditures on diseases and medical care.

If we fail to take suitable action this time, a bigger environmental and biosphere challenge – accompanied by a broader epidemic challenge – may only be beginning in a country as populous as India. This is perhaps an issue which should occupy thinkers and planners in the coming months and years. 

*About the author: Brigadier Kuldip Singh was commissioned in the Indian Army (Armoured Corps) in December 1976, and has, apart from regimental, staff, technical, instructional and command appointments in the military, also served (i) in India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation; (ii) as the Director (Intelligence Coordination) of the Defence Intelligence Agency during it’s formative years; and (iii) for about ten years as the Head of the Defence Wing in the National Security Council Secretariat, GoI. Presently, he is working in the National Disaster Management Authority of India.

Notes:

  1.  23 May 2017 Report by the USA’s National Academy of Sciences entitled “Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and decline”.
  2.  Christine Kreuder Johnson of the One Health Institute at University of California, Davis
  3.  US Geological Survey, “Human Impact on the Planet: An Earth System Science Perspective and Ethical Considerations”, By Richard S. Williams, Jr.
  4.  United Nations – “World Population Prospects The 2017 Revision Key Findings and Advance Tables”.
  5.  US Geological Survey, “Human Impact on the Planet: An Earth System Science Perspective and Ethical Considerations”, By Richard S. Williams, Jr.
  6. Vitousek, P. M., H. A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco, and J. M. Melillo. 1997. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 277 (5325): 494–499; Pimm, S. L. 2001. The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth. McGraw-Hill, NY; The Guardian. 2005. Earth is All Out of New Farmland. December 7, 2005.  …… McKee, J. K., P. W. Sciulli, C. D. Fooce, and T. A. Waite. 2004. Forecasting Biodiversity Threats Due to Human Population Growth.Biological Conservation 115(1): 161–164.
  7.  http://labs.russell.wisc.edu/peery/files/2011/12/7.-Extinction-a-Natural-and-Human-caused-Process.pdf
  8. http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-timeline-of-the-mass-extinction-events-on-earth.html
  9.  International Union for the Conservation of Nature (2009): Worldwide, 12 percent of mammals, 12 percent of birds, 31 percent of reptiles, 30 percent of amphibians, and 37 percent of fish are threatened with extinction [6].
  10.  Ibid. and Thomas, C. D., A. Cameron, R. E. Green, M. Bakkenes, L. J. Beaumont, Y. C. Collingham, B. F. N. Erasmus, M. Ferreira de Siqueira, A. Grainger, Lee Hannah, L. Hughes, Brian Huntley, A. S. van Jaarsveld, G. F. Midgley, L. Miles, M. A. Ortega-Huerta, A. Townsend Peterson, O. L. Phillips, and S. E. Williams. 2004. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145–148.
  11.  Entitled “Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled By Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines”, byGerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo; The National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 2017
  12. http://sciencing.com/extinctions-other-creatures-affect-humans-directly-20692.html