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Covid-19: A New Paradigm of a Planetary Disease


The most tragic and recent antecedent of COVID-19 is immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The disease, which was discovered in 1981 and has affected some 40 million people worldwide, originated in an immunodeficiency virus in chimpanzees in southeastern Cameroon. Since AIDS, other diseases such as Ebola, SARS and MERS were found to have been caused by the transmission of viruses from wild animal species to humans. As reported in a 2008 issue of the journal Nature, of the 335 emerging infectious diseases that occurred between 1960 and 2004, 60% came from non-human animals. However, these transmissions between non-human and human animal species are not random. There is ample evidence that ecological changes have led to an increase in rates of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Economic activity promoted by large industrial companies disruptively transforms the earth’s natural habitats and ecosystems and intensely alters the patterns and mechanisms of interaction between species.

Unfortunately, in many cases the exact causal mechanisms and impacts of these changes are still poorly understood. However, in some cases these diseases appear to spread in circumstances that denote the effects of an economic production system, destroying the natural habitats and human populations that live there, particularly where there are no effective mechanisms for regulation and protection. For example, the opening of roads to facilitate the extraction of oil and timber or establishment of palm crops in areas of primary forest, such as the Amazon rainforest, the forests of Central Africa or those of Southeast Asia. These areas favor the establishment of settlements that foster contact between humans and wildlife, which is also necessary for the emergence of new diseases. In this context, COVID-19 is shown to us as what could be a paradigmatic case of Anthropocene disease, following a sequence that includes the destruction of natural habitats and the extinction of species, production, marketing and consumption of non-human animals, the influence of lobbies to override or delay measures to protect natural and social systems, the limitation of current scientific knowledge and its underestimation by governments and businesses. John Vidal, in a recent article in Ensia magazine, has pointed out this connection between COVID-19 and planetary health.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that the virus causing the outbreak in Wuhan came from wild animal meat that was sold at the market in Wuhan's Hankou Center, where approximately 120 animals from 75 different species were marketed.

Interestingly, the first group of patients with SARS-CoV 2 in Wuhan were mostly traders in this market. Peter J. Li, a law professor at the University of Houston, has been researching the problems associated with the distribution and sale of wild animals for human consumption in China for years. As Li explained in an article in the South China Morning Post in March this year, (published in Hong Kong), these markets would have become the ideal medium to encourage the jump of the SARS-CoV 2 virus from infected animals to merchants and customers, and later to other parts of the population. Li went onto describe how, for years, the Chinese government's attempts to regulate the trade of wild animal meat has been thwarted by the influence of a powerful trading lobby whose benefits depend on maintaining access to a predominantly well-off sector of Chinese society with these animals. Further, completing the causal chain, scientists previous warnings about the potentially catastrophic effects of emerging infectious diseases have not often been heard. Experts such as Zhong Nanshan and Guan Yi, both well-known SARS experts, had warned of the possibility of a pandemic originating in the wild meat markets in China and the need to ban such commercial practices. In the case of COVID-19, traditional solutions focused on human health are necessary but not sufficient.

Josep Maria Antó is Professor of Medicine at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and senior researcher at Barcelona Institute for Global Health, ISGlobal. Member of the GLOBE Project.

Cristina O'Callaghan is Assistant Research Professor at Barcelona Institute for Global Health, ISGlobal.

This article was first published in Catalan in “Ara” on April 29, 2020