With 1.7 Million Viruses Out There We Better Make Some Changes Real Fast

Oil drilling rig in jungle of Gabon — Source: Google Images

Let’s lay it on the line in the starkest terms possible, we humans are going to have to make some big changes in the way we interact with nature if we want to survive as a species. There are an estimated 1.7 million unknown viruses infecting the Earth’s animal population of which somewhere between 631,000 and 827,000 could potentially infect human beings. And what is causing increasing human contact with zoonotic diseases (ie those that primarily exist in animals but can also be transmitted to people)? According to Dr. Dennis Carroll and other experts, it is human penetration into ecozones we have not occupied before, often driven by oil or mineral extraction.

Interviewed by the online scientific journal Nautilus last March, for decades Dr. Carroll has been a leading voice on the dangers of zoonotic spillover. In 2009 after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding and waiting to emerge in animals around the world.

The interview also quotes, Christine K Johnson, an epidemiologist at the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, as saying that Carroll is a visionary who sought to take a proactive approach to helping countries prepare for the emergence of infectious diseases and who could see that there needed to be investment in research in the wildlife sector. For a decade PREDICT received annual federal funding of $15 to $20 million. During that time, the initiative collected about 140,000 biological samples from animals and discovered over 1,000 new viruses. PREDICT also trained 5,000 people in 30 African and Asian countries and built or strengthened 60 medical research labs, mostly in poor countries. But just two months before COVID19 is thought to have begun its deadly advance in Wuhan, China, the Trump administration quietly cancelled funding for the project. In an October 25, 2019 New York Times report on PREDICT’S cancellation, interviewee Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit funding recipient, noted the end of the program was “definitely a loss” and that, “PREDICT was an approach to heading off pandemics, instead of waiting for them to emerge and then mobilizing,” which is far more expensive to deal with. The Times article also reached out to Dr. Gro Harlem Bruntland, a physician, former Norwegian prime minister and former World Health Organization director-general, who echoed Daszak by observing that PREDICT’s end was, “really unfortunate and the opposite of what we’d like to see happening” and how, “Americans need to understand how much their health security depends on that of other countries that have no capacity to do this themselves.”

Even before PREDICT’S demise, Carroll was part of a team of doctors and scientists who envisioned a Global Virome Project similar in conception to the Human Genome Project that successfully mapped all of the hereditary information encoded in human DNA. Today, the Global Virome Project has a website with a lot of information but it’s unclear from either it or secondary news sources as to what extent the project is being funded, aside from some resources for its administrative hub and unspecified “backing” from USAID.

According to Dr. Carroll, the first thing we need to understand is that whatever future threats we’re going to face are currently circulating in wildlife as a kind of “viral dark matter.” As Carroll notes, COVID19 passed from bats to humans though we’re not exactly sure how. It may have been shed from bats in the Wuhan South China Seafood Wholesale Market or it could have been from people directly handling the animal. There may also have also been a secondary wildlife source, such as the bat infected civet cats that were the source of the 2002 SARS outbreak in China. Significantly, transmission through eating infected wild life is unlikely, since cooking and preparing an animal kills the virus. Far more likely is transmission from animal slaughter and preparation for cooking.

Human disturbances in the environment are bringing bats and other forms of virus infected wildlife into closer proximity with people. Carroll uses the example of workers building camps for oil, mineral extraction or logging in increasingly remote areas. And when roads are constructed leading to these camps, they also become a conduit for the movement of infected animals to more populated areas. According to an EcoHealth Alliance study cited by Caroll, there is now an elevation of spillover animal to human infection events two to three time what they were forty years ago.

So, what needs to be done to try to arrest this trend? Peter Daszak offered some advice on a recent segment of Democracy Now! :

“We’re not saying that we’ve got to stop every modern aspect of development. We can do these things but we need to do them in a smarter, more sustainable way. And we need to start treating pandemics as a risk of doing these things around the planet. We’ve got to reassess our relationship with the environment and reduce our ecological footprint. It’s to the benefit of conservation It’ll reduce climate change. It will also stop getting us sick. For folks on the right who aren’t interested in conservation or climate change, what about your own health? You know we are making ourselves sick by making the planet sick.”

Next, world governments, non-profit and other sources of funding need to step up and support the Global Virome Project. According to Carroll, only about $100 million a year would be needed to, “carry out the kind of global program that would give us evidence to transform how we think about viral risk and how to prepare for it.” That is mere drop in the bucket, compared to what is currently being spent on the fallout caused by a single virus, and which could save the world trillions of dollars and more importantly, millions of lives, down the road.

Post Script: In February 2020, Senators Angus King and Elizabeth Warren criticized the shutdown of PREDICT, writing in a letter: “The rise of 2019-nCoV heightens the need for a robust, coordinated, and proactive response to emerging pandemics — one of the roles that PREDICT played.” On April 1, 2020 USAID granted $2.26 million to the program for a six-month emergency extension. (Source: Wikipedia)

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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