A poster in Beijing promoting wildlife as friends instead of food – Image: Andy Wong/AP

As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics  according to an article published in The Guardian, in the wake of the global spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The in-depth report, examines deadly viruses that have plagued the world in recent years, starting with the deadly Ebola virus outbreak back in January 1996, when it was “barely known to humans” and “spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics”.

The author travelled to Mayibout 2 in 2004 to investigate why deadly diseases new to humans were emerging from biodiversity “hotspots” such as tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities.

Mayibout 2 “sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe Forest in northern Gabon; located at the Equator in West-Central Africa, bordered by Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo.

Kate Jones wrote: “It took a day by canoe and then many hours along degraded forest logging roads, passing Baka villages and a small goldmine, to reach the village.

“There, I found traumatised people still fearful that the deadly virus, which kills up to 90% of the people it infects, would return.

“Villagers told me how children had gone into the forest with dogs that had killed the chimp.

“They said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a terrible fever within a few hours. Some died immediately, while others were taken down the river to hospital.”

A few, like Nesto Bematsick, recovered – many of his family members died”.

“Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harbouring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans such as Ebola, HIV and dengue.

“But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike.

In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Increasing threat

A bushmeat stall with pangolins, bush rats and tiger cats for sale on the roadside outside Bata in Equatorial Guinea – Image: Carl de Souza, AFP/Getty Images

Research suggests “that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, Sars, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise”.

“Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places.

“The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.

“Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago…A few, like COVID-19, which emerged last year in Wuhan, China, and Mers, which is linked to camels in the Middle East, are new to humans and spreading globally.

“Other diseases that have crossed into humans include Lassa fever, which was first identified in 1969 in Nigeria, Nipah from Malaysia; and Sars from China, which killed more than 700 people and travelled to 30 countries in 2002-03.

“Some, like Zika and West Nile virus, which emerged in Africa, have mutated and become established in other continents.

Amplification effect

In 2008, Jones and a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004. At least 60% of which came from animals.

Increasingly, Jones says these “diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour”, through things like “the disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth”.

“There are countless pathogens out there continuing to evolve which at some point could pose a threat to humans,” says Eric Fevre, chair of veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health.

“The risk (of pathogens jumping from animals to humans) has always been there.”

But the difference between now and a few decades ago, is that “diseases are likely to spring up in both urban and natural environments”.

“We have created densely packed populations where alongside us are bats and rodents and birds, pets and other living things. That creates intense interaction and opportunities for things to move from species to species.”

Tip of the iceberg

A dead monkey sold as bushmeat hangs outside a villager’s house in north-east Gabon – Image: Christine Nesbitt/AP

The bad news, is “pathogens do not respect species boundaries”, according to Thomas Gillespie, a Disease Ecologist.

An Associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behaviour add to the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to humans.

“I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between host animals – in which the virus is naturally circulating – and themselves,” the report said.

“We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts.

“A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic.”

Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress.

“Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.”

But Disease Ecologists argue that viruses and other pathogens are also “likely to move from animals to humans in the many informal markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world”.

“Here, animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot,” the report said.

Kate Jones warns of ‘a very significant threat to global health, security & economies’ – Image: Kate Jones

“The ‘wet market’ (one that sells fresh produce and meat) in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of the current COVID-19 pandemic, was known to sell numerous wild animals, “including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles”.

“Equally, urban markets in west and central Africa sell monkeys, bats, rats, and dozens of species of bird, mammal, insect and rodent slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage.

“The Wuhan market, along with others that sell live animals, has been shut by the Chinese authorities, and last month Beijing outlawed the trading and eating of wild animals except for fish and seafood. But bans on live animals being sold in urban areas or informal markets are not the answer, say some scientists.

According to Jones: “The wet market in Lagos is notorious. It’s like a nuclear bomb waiting to happen. But it’s not fair to demonise places which do not have fridges. These traditional markets provide much of the food for Africa and Asia.”

Delia Grace, a senior Epidemiologist and Veterinarian with the International Livestock Research Institute based in Nairobi, Kenya said:

“These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible.”

Changing behaviour

Jones says that “change must come from both rich and poor societies”.

Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the global north leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease, she says.

“We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” Bird says.

“Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behaviour, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.

“These spillovers start with one or two people. The solutions start with education and awareness. We must make people aware things are different now.

“I have learned from working in Sierra Leone with Ebola-affected people that local communities have the hunger and desire to have information,” he says. “They want to know what to do.They want to learn.”

The bottom line, Bird says, is to be prepared.

“We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from, so we need mitigation plans to take into account the worst possible scenarios,” he says. “The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come.”

  • Top Feature Photo: Bats trapped in nets to be examined for possible viral load in Gabon – Image: Steeve Jordan/AFP via Getty Images