By May 22, the coronavirus pandemic had taken the lives of 330,000 people, leaving 5 million people worldwide infected. The pandemic has shown that mankind is not ready to handle the rapid spread of such a disease… and it’s only a matter of time before the next breakout occurs.
According to the World Health Organization, the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-19 passed to humans from animals, but it is not yet clear which ones. Among possible hosts of the virus were bats, pangolins and other animals. Zoonotic diseases have often in history caused devastating pandemics, including plagues such as the Justinian plague and the Great Plague. This list includes Ebola, HIV, Zika, SARS, MERS, dengue fever and the West Nile virus.
Even before the new coronavirus pandemic, scientists predicted that the human onslaught on nature had left us susceptible to the outbreak of a new pandemic, which could affect millions of people.
According to environmentalists, there are three major factors that contribute to such pandemics: a large concentration of people (high population density), drastic changes among plants and wildlife and broad ecological collapse.
Where might the next pandemic occur?
The next pandemic could certainly spread across the Earth from the Amazon rainforest. This argument was made by several Western publications of David Lapola, a well-known Brazilian environmentalist, blogger and political activist. He holds a PhD in earth system modeling from the Max Planck Institutes in Germany and works at the University of Campinas in Brazil.
Lapola warns that human encroachment on wildlife habitats – which is probably what started today’s new coronavirus pandemic – is growing rapidly in the Amazon due to unbridled deforestation.
By destroying the jungle, he said, people are penetrating further and further into once wild areas, increasing the threat of viruses being transmitted to humans.
David M. Lapola: Futuras pandemias poderão começar no Brasil https://t.co/xExfToClIM
— David Lapola (@DavidLapola) May 7, 2020
According to the expert, the exceptional diversity of Amazonia makes it “the world’s biggest coronavirus pool.”
According to Sachin Minhas, an Indian medic from Dept. of Medical Oncology, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, his native country may become “the origin of the next COVID-19 like epidemic”.
The author notes that one cannot blame the new coronavirus pandemic on the eating habits of the Chinese as many had at the start of the pandemic. Domestic animals and humans may be infected by contacts with the feces and saliva of infected animals.
Thus, despite the fact that India has the highest proportion of vegetarians in the population compared to all other countries in the world, it may nonetheless become the epicenter of the new pandemic.
Deforestation in India is in full swing: 2%, or 13,000 sq k in India is occupied by illegal human settlements. Millions of people in rural areas depend on forests. More and more people are coming closer and closer to wildlife. In India, however, you don’t even have to leave the city to do this: the cities have long been inhabited by monkeys, wild pigs and even leopards at night.
At the same time, the population in India is growing, the density of population is increasing, and sanitary norms leave much to be desired. In this way, India can become a clockwise viral bomb that can explode at any time.
China is not only the epicenter of the new coronavirus. In 2003, SARS coronavirus spread from China to 26 countries. The coronavirus allegedly came from infected bats.
The current coronavirus pandemic forced China to actively mobilize to fight the spread of the disease, but it nonetheless spread outside of China and became a global issue.
To prevent new pandemics, the Chinese are even changing their eating habits. In January, the Chinese authorities banned trade in wild animals. Since experts believe that the virus is transmitted to humans from wild animals, the authorities have also quarantined all cattle farms in the country. In May, a complete ban on eating and breeding of wild animals for this purpose was introduced by the authorities of the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the world coronavirus pandemic SARS-CoV-2 began. Wild animal hunting and trading were also banned.
The decision was made in accordance with the resolutions of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China on banning illegal trade in wild animals, combating illegal consumption of wild animals for food, illegal hunting, trade, transportation of wild animals and other illegal actions.
On April 10, the Chinese government removed dogs, bats and lizards from the list of animals allowed to be raised for meat.
However, even a complete ban on the consumption of wild animal meat for food will not completely stop the spread of the disease.
It is possible that pathogenic viruses and bacteria from wildlife may infect domestic animals and then humans. There is also the possibility of wild animals being sold to be used in Chinese traditional medicine on the black market.
Southeast Asian countries
Strongly developing economies and the high diversity of tropical animal species, especially rodents and bats, make South-East Asian countries another potential candidate for the epicenter of a new pandemic. Bats make up about 50%of mammals in the most biologically diverse tropical regions. The immune system of bats is characterized by high resistance to all kinds of viruses. This allows them to survive, but it also turns them into vectors of various infections.
As the Washington Post notes: “the 1998 emergence in Malaysia of Nipah virus, which has killed hundreds of people in several outbreaks in Asia, is a vivid example of spillover fueled by environmental change and agricultural intensification”.
According to a study published in The Lancet Medical Journal in 2011, “The next global pandemic is likely to arise in South-East Asia” with factors from “weak surveillance to the increasing proximity of humans and animals”.
The weakness of local health systems is also a complicating factor in combating the spread of the disease. At the same time, even previously closed countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia are opening up to the world and are becoming popular tourist destinations, which opens up the possibility of the spread of disease.
Africa also has all the ingredients for a future pandemic. Recently, the continent has become a hotbed of HIV, Ebola, Zika and other deadly diseases. A growing population, an onslaught on nature and a high population density in megacities are also making Africa a hot spot for the new global pandemic.
“In Africa, dwindling populations of large mammals mean game is increasingly from smaller species, including rodents and bats,” Fabian Leendertz, a veterinarian who studies zoonotic diseases at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin told the Washington Post. While some of this is done for subsistence or traditional purposes, exotic meat sales are also a “huge economy” in the fast-growing megacities, Leendertz said.
This is a serious cause for concern.
Mongolia and Kazakhstan
Even the plague itself has not been defeated in the world. The largest number of cases is registered annually in a small Congolese province of Ituri.
However, the largest natural reservoirs of plague bacteria are located in the steppes of Eurasia: in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where outbreaks of plague are constantly registered and live primary vectors of disease: steppe rodents.
The epizootic process sometimes includes so-called synanthropic rodents (in particular, rats and mice), as well as some wild animals (hares, foxes) that are the object of hunting. From domestic animals, camels are affected by plague.
According to Kazakh scientists, 162 strains of plague were isolated in 2014 during the study of the territory of Kazakhstan, and the nearest point to the largest city of the country – Almaty – was only 160 kilometers away.
The terrible disease from the past may return, and this time the scale of the problem may be bigger than ever: thousands of people live in modern cities, high population density, migration activity, modern means of transportation and numerous contacts may turn any outbreak into an epidemic.
With modern medicine, the death rate in the bubonic form of plague does not exceed 5-10%. Still, this is much higher than the death rate of COVID-19.
In addition, natural plague foci are found in the USA, Brazil, Peru, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria, Madagascar and several other African countries.
The awakening of the “old ones”
Leaving aside the possibility of viruses and pathogenic bacteria leaking from biological laboratories (especially American biolaboratories), the climate factor poses a significant threat to the development of the epidemic situation in the world.
Climate change can lead to the appearance of tropical diseases in countries with mild climates whose inhabitants are not immune to them. Another threat is the melting of glaciers, which may bring to the surface previously “sleeping” ancient viruses.
In January, American scientists working to select ice cores from a glacier in the Tibetan Plateau region of China found 28 viruses that had been frozen for 15,000 years and previously unknown to mankind.
Thus, countries affected by climate change, where mountain systems are located in glaciers like in a natural refrigerator, may become hotbeds of new diseases that could become a global pandemic.
With modern industrial development, the emergence of new pandemics is a matter of time. They will not only be viral, but also bacterial in nature, as pathogenic bacteria are now also evolving to produce a dangerous property – antimicrobial resistance. This is facilitated by the active use of antibiotics in the treatment of human and animal diseases and the active use of antibiotics in agriculture as a preventive measure against disease.
However, the death rate from a new pandemic may be much higher than it is now in the case of novel coronavirus, for example, if something similar in mortality and virulence to the Spanish influenza of 1918 appears. With the current population density and the development of global linkages, a similar virus could kill up to half a billion people.
Only increased preparation of medicine and facilities for treating mass disease, the rupture of seemingly inviolable global ties, the reevaluation of globalization and technological development can save humanity.