UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.

Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.

A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.

Covid-19 graphic
Microbes can pass from animals to humans, causing disease pandemics.
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Humans costs are mounting

The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:

…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.

The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpazees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).

The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.

But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.

Doctor giving injection to patient
Governments are focused on pandemic responses such as developing vaccines, rather than prevention.
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As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:

…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.

The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.




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It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.

People wearing masks in a crowd
The cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention.
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A way forward

The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:

• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation

• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption

• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.

Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:

  • education policies

  • labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured

  • providing incentives for sustainable behaviour

  • increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.

People inspecting haul of wildlife products
Cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent pandemics.
AP

An Australian response

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.

However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.

For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.

The government cut funding of environmental studies courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce so called “green tape” in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic will be led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.




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Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.

But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.

Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.

As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Adjunct Professor University of Western Australia, Institute of Agriculture

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why bats don’t get sick from the viruses they carry, but humans can



Bats are key pollinators and seed-spreaders, and keep pests away.
(Shutterstock)

Livia O. Loureiro, University of Toronto

One of the first questions scientists ask when a new disease appears is, “Where did this come from?”

Many viruses jump from animals to humans, a phenomenon known as “zoonotic spillover.” Although it remains unclear which animal was the source of the current coronavirus pandemic, all the attention is on bats.

The transmission of viruses from bats to humans is not just a matter of a bat biting someone or licking their blood. (Bats do not suck blood as they do in vampire stories.) It is often a much more complex scenario that may involve an intermediary host.

Many other animals are also known to be repositories for human diseases. Rodents carry the plague, pigs transmit influenza and birds transport the West Nile virus. So, why are bats so often blamed for transmitting disease?

As a scientist who has spent years studying the evolution of bats in several countries in South America, North America and the Caribbean, I think that these night creatures are often the victims of misinformation. Most people are afraid of bats, and there is a tendency to connect them to bad things.

Heating up

One reason bats are blamed for disease has nothing to do with science. Bats are associated with vampires and horror stories, which causes fear and misunderstanding towards these flying creatures.

The other reasons are grounded in evidence. Bats are the second-most species-rich order of mammals. There are more than 1,400 species distributed worldwide, except in Antarctica. They live in urban and natural areas, and they all have the potential to carry viruses. Bats are also mammals, and this relatedness to humans makes them more likely to be hosts of zoonoses than birds and reptiles, for example.




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Some bat species prefer to live in colonies, close to one another, creating a perfect setting for pathogens to spread between each other — and to other species who might also share the space. Bats are also the only mammals capable of true flight, making it easier for them to spread diseases through their guano (bat feces).

But what is particularly interesting is their tolerance to viruses, which exceeds that of other mammals. When bats fly, they release a great amount of energy, which increases their body temperature to 38–41 C. The pathogens that have evolved in bats are able to withstand these high temperatures. This poses a problem for humans because our immune system has evolved to use high temperatures — in the form of fevers — as a way to disable pathogens.

Seed dispersers

Despite all the negative press bats receive, they make positive contributions to the environment and to our lives.

The majority of species feed on insects, helping protect crops from infestations. They are involved in seed dispersal, such as those from fig trees and silver palms, and the pollination of many plants, including several commercial ones, such as the eucalyptus and agave, which provide natural fibres and beverages, such as tequila and mescal.




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Bats have also been used in scientific research to understand adaptive evolution (how beneficial mutations become common in a population) and how ecosystems function. They have also be used in studies on aging, cancer, immunity and biomimetic engineering.

And most importantly, bats might actually help to provide the solution for COVID-19 and other viruses. Bats do not get sick from many viruses that might kill humans, and research on how bats achieve this could hold the key to help us fight this and future outbreaks.

‘Bad reputation?’

It is clear that researchers around the world are doing whatever they can to report the origin of SARS-CoV-2. So far, the most accepted hypothesis is that the novel coronavirus originated in bats. The genome of the virus found in humans is 96 per cent identical to one found in bats. But are these findings being reported the way they should?

Not always, from the bat’s perspective, at least.

Complex scientific studies are being published very fast, which is understandable considering the urgency of this new disease. However, this hastiness is leading to mistrust, confusion and sometimes even fear and hatred towards these flying mammals.

In some places, this growing “bad reputation” has led to the intentional and needless killing of bats in the name of protecting public health. But this could have negative consequences: disturbing hibernating bats causes abnormal arousal and stress, which could lead to the spread of new diseases.

But even if bats are proven to be the source of this virus, they are not to blame for the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 — humans are. We destroy natural habitats at a frenetic speed; we kill threatened species, changing entire food chains; we pollute the air, the water and the soil.

It is expected that new pathogens that were previously locked away in nature will come in contact with people and spread fast as people move around the world. The people who blame bats for COVID-19 should look in the mirror to see if the real vampire resides within.The Conversation

Livia O. Loureiro, Research Fellow, The Cente for Applied Genomics — Sickkids Hospital, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.