Myth of Coronavirus
Scientists have pointed to animals as potential sources of the virus, but the real blame lies with our human assaults on the environment, says Sonia Shah.
It could have been a pangolin. Or a bat. Or, as one now-debunked theory that made the rounds suggested, a snake.
The race to finger the animal source of COVID-19 is on. The virus’s animal origin is a critical mystery to solve. But speculation about which wild creature originally harbored the virus obscures a more fundamental source of our growing vulnerability to pandemics: the accelerating pace of habitat loss.
Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or reemerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before. They include HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses. The majority of them—60 percent—originate in the bodies of animals. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them—more than two-thirds—originate in wildlife.
But that’s not the fault of wild animals. Although stories illustrated with pictures of wild animals as “the source” of deadly outbreaks might suggest otherwise, wild animals are not especially infested with deadly pathogens, poised to infect us. In fact, most of these microbes live harmlessly in these animals’ bodies.
The problem is the way that cutting down forests and expanding towns, cities, and industrial activities creates pathways for animal microbes to adapt to the human body.
Habitat destruction threatens vast numbers of wild species with extinction, including the medicinal plants and animals we’ve historically depended upon for our pharmacopeia. It also forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats. It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.
Consider Ebola. According to a 2017 study, Ebola outbreaks, which have been linked to several species of bats, are more likely to occur in places in Central and West Africa that have experienced recent episodes of deforestation. Cutting down the bats’ forests forces them to roost in trees in backyards and farms instead, increasing the likelihood that a human might, say, take a bite of a piece of fruit covered in bat saliva or hunt and slaughter a local bat, exposing herself to the microbes sheltering in the bat’s tissues.
The epidemiologist Larry Brilliant once said, “Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” But pandemics only remain optional if we have the will to disrupt our politics as readily as we disrupt nature and wildlife. In the end, there is no real mystery about the animal source of pandemics. It’s not some spiky scaled pangolin or furry flying bat. It’s populations of warm-blooded primates: The true animal source is us.
* A full version of this article originally appeared in The Nation magazine here.
Sonia Shah is author of PANDEMIC: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, and her fifth book, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move will be published in June.
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