Covid-19 — what needs to be done…
This is a fairly long article — which is trying to be comprehensive, tell you all you need to know in order to accept (or reject) my proposal.
I am in touch with three friends working on the new corona virus — one at Google, one at Northwestern and (you won’t believe this) an Italian/Albanian chess grandmaster who has been working in a research institute for ten years with a group trying to develop a broadband vaccination against AIDS. Of course he and his colleagues have now switched to covid-19.
So I am definitely overwhelmed with information. However, so are probably you (who can read anything other than viruses and the pandemic these days?). Which means there are passages in this article you can simply skip. Just scroll to the sections of interest.
- How much does the world spend on arms?
- The new SARS virus CoV-2
- Bats and viruses
- Wet markets
- So what to do about them?
- The 100-billion-dollar solution
So let us begin.
1. How much does the world spend on arms?
The world spends around two trillion dollars a year on arms. The United States alone has an 800 billion dollar yearly budget — more than the next twelve nations together. Aircraft carriers the size of small cities are built, giant fleets of planes, missiles that can destroy anyone and anything all over the globe, nuclear weapons that can end the existence of all mankind, completely, many times over. All this is euphemistically termed “defence.”
But all this military might was helpless against a particle so small it cannot be seen under a normal optical microscope. It was a new strain of a virus, a sliver of genetic material that is not even really alive. But that tiny organic substance brought the world to a standstill. As I write these lines five million people have been infected and 350,000 people have died. The virus has stopped society in its tracks. It has locked hundreds of millions of people in their houses, taken their jobs.
2. The new SARS virus CoV-2
The new virus made its first appearance at the end of December 2019, in the metropolitan city of Wuhan in China. It was named nCov-2019 (for novel Corona virus 2019), which changed to the official SARS CoV-2 (for severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 — SARS CoV-1 struck in 2002–2004).
The disease caused by the latest SARS virus is called COVID-19 (CoronaVirus Disease 19). On 30 January 2020 it was declared an epidemic, on 11 March it was recognized as a pandemic.
Viruses are submicroscopic particles of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protective coat of protein. They do not replicate by feeding and dividing (as bacteria do) but instead induce the living cells of the host organism to do it for them. Viruses can infect all kinds of life forms: animals, plants, bacteria — in fact the very first virus to be discovered was in tobacco plants.
Viruses are ubiquitous, they are to be found in almost every ecosystem, and represent the largest reservoir of genetic diversity on Earth.
Viruses have always been the most effective way of transferring genetic information between different species. This generally speeded up evolution, especially in the early phase. Sometimes it was useful and the modified genes became a permanent part of the cells that the virus had invaded. But the genetic invasion had a dark side: sometimes it was deadly — the cells were destroyed or in fact they destroyed the creature of which they were part.
A virus can normally only induce specific cells in a specific organism to produce copies of itself. So an animal virus, one that infects say chickens, or potato leaves, is normally harmless in a human body.
However, that is not always the case. There is a process called zoonosis, which is the direct or indirect transmission of active viruses from animals to humans. This has happened in the case of Ebola and HIV. The latter jumped from African primates, chimpanzees, to humans in the early part of the 20th century, and then mutated to a separate human-only disease. Bird flu and swine flu are zoonoses.
When animal viruses recombine with purely human strains they can cause pandemics, such as the Spanish flu in 1918. That was the really big one that infected 500 million people and killed 50 million of them. I have written an article on the greatest pandemics to hit mankind — most were zoonotic. You may also be interested in this article which tells you how to explain viruses to young children who are currently locked in and kept from their friends.
The most dangerous microorganisms that make the transition from animals to man are, for obvious reasons, the ones that are not immediately deadly. Organisms that quickly kill you have little chance of spreading widely, the ones that show few or no symptoms are the ones we gleefully pass on to our neighbours. They can lead to pandemics, which is the name given to epidemic diseases that spread across multiple continents or worldwide and affect a very large number of people. They are usually characterized by not killing or seriously incapacitating the bearers, at least not initially or in a majority of cases, before they can be passed on to other potential carriers.
Most pandemics come from microorganisms — usually viruses — that were carried by wild animals for hundreds of thousands of years. The animals have developed resistance to them, but when they migrate to humans they enter a species that had no defences. Plague, Smallpox, Leprosy, Influenza, HIV, Anthrax, Ebola, West Nile, Lassa, Lyme, Zika, SARS, MERS are all zoonotic transmissions — just a few of the hundred I could list here.
4. Bats and viruses
The original host of SARS CoV-2 (like Ebola, SARS CoV-1 and MERS) was almost certainly a bat. Bats are the only flying mammals, and there are about 1,300 different species, one fifth of the entire mammalian population of the earth. They are important insect predators, plant pollinators (around 300 plants, like banana, mango and avocado depend mostly on bat pollination) and seed distributors (figs, cacao). They live an average of 30 years, and are particularly resistant to the effects of viral infection. The high-functioning immune system of bats cause invading viruses to mutate more rapidly than they would in normal hosts, and to develop into deadlier pathogens. When these zoonotically leap to humans they are especially dangerous.
So bats are ideal virus carriers, they host more zoonotic diseases than any other species. It is clear that what we definitely should not do: invade bat caves, where millions reside, wade through their excrements, in clouds of urine, catch them in their thousands, and take them to markets and sell them — for bat soup! All this is an invitation to start yet another pandemic.
5. Wet markets
A “wet market” is a place where vendors sell fresh meat, usually by slaughtering live animals upon customer purchase. The slaughter of dogs and cats horrifies us, but it is the other non-domestic species that should have people truly worried. In wet markets you can find monkeys, raccoons, foxes, meerkats, civets, porcupines, turtles, rats, mice, snakes, pangolins (the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world) and dozens of other wild species. And bats, bats, bats. You can watch their preparation into a full meal here — or look for the recipe for the very popular bat soup (“three or four live fruit bats, washed but not skinned, water, garlic, ginger, soya sauce and coconut milk”).
Now I am not squeamish about eating unusual things— snails, live clam, live little fish. I have written about this in my article The things people will eat (1), which will soon get a follow-up. I have eaten snake, monkey, iguana and other things in the food courts of Singapore, decades ago. I have even tasted bat and rat curry in my visits to jungle tribes in India.
What is dangerous in the wet markets is that stressed, injured, and sick animals are kept alive in small cages, waiting for slaughter. Peter Li, an associate professor at the University of Houston–Downtown, describes it vividly: “The cages are stacked one over another, animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid: animal excrement, pus, blood.”
This is the perfect breeding grounds for disease, the place where viruses can easily spread from one animal to another. If you are looking for a method to generate new viruses that can cause a pandemic, there is no better way. Wet markets have caused most of the great pandemics. SARS-CoV-1 from 2002–2004 originated in horseshoe bats in China’s Yunnan province and invaded humans engaged in market activities. CoV-2 almost certainly originated in bats, probably incorporating genetic material from a pangolin virus that inserted its genome into the partially-complete strand of genetic material of a bat virus, producing a hybrid that is responsible for Covid-19.
6. So what to do about them?
Clearly, if we wish to avoid global disruptions on the scale we are currently seeing, we need to close down wet markets that trade in wild animals, all over the world. China, which has the greatest number (followed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico — get my point?), tried forbidding them after the outbreak of Covid-19, after a bipartisan group of 60 US lawmakers called for a ban.
Unfortunately the Chinese ban on wet markets lasted just two months, after which they were allowed to reopen again, “under strict health conditions.” Why? Thedros Gebhreyesus, Director General of W.H.O. has called wet markets “an important source of affordable food and livelyhood for millions of people all over the world.” Global wildlife trade and trafficking is worth billions of dollars per year. This makes a ban difficult (or politically inexpedient) to enforce.
In addition, as is often argued, there are many gradations of wet markets, which represent different levels of the potential damage they can do. But while there is zoonotic risk in any form of animal husbandry, the danger is especially grave in dealings with wild animals, which have pathogens against which humans have not had the chance to develop immunity.
With the advent of Covid-19 people are at last ready to make sacrifices. A survey by GlobeScan for the World Wildlife Fund asked 5,000 participants from Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam what they think about markets that sell wildlife: 93% said they would support a ban on illegal and unregulated wildlife markets, and 84% said they were very unlikely to buy wildlife products in the future. It should be noted that wildlife meat is mainly provided to the wealthy. The lower-income population seeks more common forms of meat —chicken, beef, mutton, pork — for nourishment.
7. The 100-billion-dollar solution
So what I am proposing is that we spend one hundred billion dollars on closing down wet markets that allow wildlife trade, in order to prevent one pandemic after another from arising. Sounds like a crazy idea, a massively exaggerated sum, brought up purely for effect? Well, think about it. The current SARS CoV-2 has infected tens of millions of people, and killed well over a million (so far). It has put hundreds of millions of people out of work, locked them in their houses. And it has caused unfathomable economic damage.
What I am asking for is a paltry sum: it is less than one percent of what the world spends on “defence”, 1/8th of what the US spends (per year!) — to prevent destruction and war-time defeat at the hands of North Korea or Iran. A modern aircraft carrier costs 13 billion dollars, the envisioned US Space Force would cost 15.4 billion dollars. Oh, and combatting just the economic damage caused by Covid-19 will cost the US over ten trillion dollar. The rest of the world will have to find ten times that amount to mitigate the pandemic damage. We need less than one percent to prevent this from happening regularly.
I will tell you what we need the hundred billion for. There are tens of thousands of dangerous wet markets world-wide. They need to be all shut down, or rigorously monitored, every one of them, and without exception. I know that many are simple meat markets — we can keep those, but need to police them meticulously. It is the ones which have exotic live animals held in close proximity, waiting for slaughter, that need to go.
But: there is a vast number of people whose livelyhoods depend on such markets. Writing stern letters or demanding action is not enough. The hundred billion dollars would be used to give vendors an alternate supply of protein to sell to populations that are used to fresh meat. Build clean modern chicken, pig, cattle or goat farms, where the people can work under hygienic conditions — and in fact earn more than they would trapping exotic animals and bringing them alive to market. And it would be very much less dangerous — we have hundreds of years of experience in health control for traditional animal husbandry (chickens, cattle, sheep). Somehow we must convince people that delicious bat soup or gorilla paw stew are things of the past. And that eating exotic animals has no medicinal value.
Someone I discussed this plan with objected that rewarding the wet market operators for their abhorrent practices with billions of dollars in subsidies is hardly a just solution. But it is the only way: forbidding wet markets and providing no alternative is bound to fail, as China has shown in the current crisis. They were able to implement that solution for just two months.
There is one more thing we need to do to close down all wet markets that allow trade with exotic wildlife: make it hideously illegal. Make countries and governments directly responsible for the implementation of the ban, threaten them with the stiffest of penalties if any exotic animal or otherwise uncontrolled market is discovered. Use economic sanctions and travel restrictions, make it extraordinarily painful for any country to continue endangering the rest of the world.
Define the wet market as biological warfare which must be forbidden. And that will, incidentally, do wonders for wildlife on planet Earth.