Ecological disruption and pandemic threats

The news from China is bad. The lifting of strict COVID-19 regulations in early December -regulations that had been sternly enforced for almost three years, under the country’s so-called “Zero-COVID” policy- has been followed by a great surge of infections. The existence of such a surge was suspected for weeks but denied by Chinese officialdom, who withheld data. Then, on January 14, a spokeswoman from the National Health Commission admitted that the country had suffered almost 60,000 Covid-related deaths since December 8. The virus is belatedly tormenting China the way it tormented northern Italy, New York City, and parts of Brazil back in spring of 2020.

The China surge hit first in urban areas, including Beijing and Shanghai, but also far-flung cities such as Dongguan in the South and Yulin in the North. Hospitals were overwhelmed, medicines (including simple fever reducers such as ibuprofen) became scarce, and many healthcare professionals continued to work despite being infected themselves. Since early January, the disease has begun piling up victims in rural areas well. Small clinics and community health centers are filling with patients to whom they can offer only basic care. The Chinese population remains especially vulnerable because immunity from past infections is very low and full vaccination of elderly people is low also. The three years of “Zero-COVID” were evidently wasted by Chinese authorities, who might have used that delay period to prepare better for the inevitable. But they did not.

So the pandemic is not over. The Covid coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, is not gone. It’s as busy as ever, replicating, mutating, evolving. It will almost certainly remain in the human population forever. And there is no guarantee (despite what some people believe they have heard) that it will evolve into a less harmless form, such as the viruses that cause common colds. That misunderstanding is sometimes supported by an ill-informed adage that passes for wisdom: “A successful parasite does not kill its host.” Wrong. The correct statement would be: “A successful parasite does not kill its host until it has had time to infect another host.” If the coronavirus infects person A, transmits to person B and person C, and from person C onward to others, then it has achieved evolutionary success, whether or not person A dies. Darwinian natural selection, the main mechanism of evolution, does not “see” and does not “care” what happens to infected individuals after they have transmitted a virus.

Amid the continuing turmoil, we need to appreciate that SARS-CoV-2 may remain not just present but deadly, and that we may need to continue vaccinating against it, and fighting it in other ways, for decades.

Where did this virus come from? How did it get into humans? Those questions are also important, because the answers will help guide our efforts to prevent similar viral pandemics in the future. The mystery of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has been hotly discussed, with mostly scientific experts on one side of the matter and mostly amateur sleuths plus a few journalists on the other. That discussion has been muddled by misinformation, speculation, and accusation, all offered to suggest that the virus somehow leaked from a laboratory. A lab leak is theoretically possible, but there is no positive evidence that it happened. There is much empirical evidence and expert analysis by molecular evolutionary virologists and epidemiologists, on the other hand, suggesting that the virus probably reached humans by natural spillover from a wild animal. That seems to have occurred in or around a certain “wet market” in the city of Wuhan. The animal carrying the virus may have been a raccoon dog or a palm civet or a bamboo rat or one of the other wild creatures, captured live and transported to Wuhan, that were on sale for food in the market. Some evidence even suggests that two distinct chains of human infection began in the market, which might reflect viral transmission from two different animals. The carrier animal (or animals) likely acquired the virus, either in the wild or during transport, from a horseshoe bat. Viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 have been detected in horseshoe bats in southern China, and also in Thailand and Laos, just across the southern Chinese border.

More evidence is needed, but the process of gathering such evidence and sharing it among scientists has been severely constrained by two factors: the pandemic itself and mutual distrust between the Chinese government and its critics in the West, much exacerbated by this origins controversy.

One more thing is important for everyone to remember: that the trafficking of wild animals for food-bats or raccoon dogs in China, bats or pangolins in Africa, other creatures elsewhere- is not the only disruptive activity that exposes humans to wildlife viruses. The extraction of timber and fossil fuels from richly diverse tropical ecosystems is another. The mining of strategic minerals such as coltan—a material essential for the manufacture of high-tech electronic devices—is still another. Therefore, anyone who owns a smart phone or a laptop computer or a fancy camera, or even a new car, also owns a share of responsibility for the continuing threat of viral spillover.

Eight billion humans presently inhabit this planet, all of us hungry, all of us thirsty, all of us consuming energy and wood and other material resources, in various quantities, as our appetites dictate and our levels of affluence allow. At the other end of the spectrum of sentience lie viruses, these relatively simple creatures, of which Earth harbors many millions of different forms. Among the millions, maybe one or two million kinds of virus reside in nonhuman mammals and birds. I highlight mammals and birds because they are generally the sources of the new viruses that infect people—not just SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS virus of 2003, but also Ebola virus and Marburg and Lassa and Hendra and Nipah and HIV and many others.

With our voracious consumption, our disruption of diverse ecosystems, our devastation of natural landscapes all over the globe, we humans continue driving the most vulnerable of our fellow creatures toward extinction: the western chimpanzee, the eastern lowland gorilla, the tiger, the slender-billed curlew, the sociable lapwing, Hill’s horseshoe bat, and too many others to name, each serving as host to its own viruses. Many of those viruses are malleable opportunists. Evolution allows them to change, rather quickly, and compels them to survive. As the planet gets smaller and emptier, their best remaining opportunity will be to infect us.

That’s a grim and ironic sort of justice, and we should do all possible not to earn it.