In an interview, Shankar Raj, former Resident Editor of The New Indian Express and Editor of Science Express, speaks of environment and coronavirus.  

We are in the midst of deepening coronavirus scare. Is there a connection with environment?

Yes. More than 60% of new pathogens that cause widespread health scare originate in the bodies of animals. Of late we have been witnessing a dangerous emergence and outbreaks of multiple zoonotic diseases – infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses that jump from animals to humans. Some of them, like Covid 19, are new to humans, and hence we do not have immunity against them.

Since 2000, we have had three pandemics – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009 and now Covid-19. SARS and Covid-19 spread from civet cats/ pangolin and bats in China and swine flu from an intensive pig farm in Mexico. Moving from global scale, we also had regional outbreaks of bird flu from poultry, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) from camels, Ebola from monkeys and pigs, Rift Valley fever from livestock, West Nile fever from birds, Zika from monkey and Nipah from bats.

Why are zoonotic diseases making a comeback?

I would not term it as a comeback because some of the zoonotic diseases are new. They are sudden outbreaks. The prime reason for the outbreaks is environmental destruction. Due to deforestation and habitat loss, wild animals and humans are getting closer, leading to the spill-over of animal diseases into humans. Ebola, West Nile virus, Nipah and Zika come under this category. Similarly, livestock is also coming in contact with wildlife and transmitting pathogens to people, like the Rift Valley virus.

Increasingly, people and animals are not only coming into conflict, but also intimate contact. For example, when we cut down forests, the animals need new places to live in. The four-legged ones like tigers, leopards, elephants etc go deeper into forests and come occasionally into conflict with people who have occupied their lands when they run short of food or water. This results in deaths. Elephants, leopards often enter and destroy villages and crops.

But the more worrisome is the winged species. When you cut down trees, these species come to your backyard. There is safety and plenty of food to forage upon. This results in close contact with humans. This is what happened in Kerala in 2018 when the Nipah virus claimed 19 lives in Perambra in Kozhikode district. Bats are good hosts of viruses and transmission was mainly through the fruits that they eat.

Now there are cases of Kyasanur Forest Disease (monkey fever) in Kozhikode which has claimed one life and eight others are in hospital. This is because monkeys have started coming into close contact with humans there. Also of concern are reports that bats have suddenly started dying in Kozhikode. Bird flu is also rampant in Kozhikode district.

And then there is what is called intensive animal farms. The industrial farming of animals, by keeping animals very close to each other and pumping them with growth promoters like antibiotics, is another cause. Bird flu and swine flu both have their origin in intensive animal farms.

What about coronavirus?

Coronovirus or COVID 19 mainly emerged in the wet markets of China. The wet markets and factory farms of south China are the hotspots for avian influenza. I feel we should modify our diet and avoid exotic animals in our food chain. But here again, people have been coming into extremely close contact with animals – so close that they consume the meat of certain exotic species. These forest species may have played host to viruses. This is what happened in the case of Covid.  

China is understandable, but why is Kerala sometimes the centre of viruses – be it Nipah, COVID or bird flu?

Again, environment has a role to play. Kerala is the most thickly populated state and the dividing lines between human habitats and forests are often blurred. Kerala is also known for its rampant encroachments on claim forest lands. Forests and hills have started vanishing and water bodies are under threat. All this has caused massive ecological imbalances. Kerala has the best health system, but very poor environment policy.

What about climate change?

Yes, climate change too results in animals and birds moving into new places. This could be in search of food or due to the climate not suiting them. Their body clock is also sometimes upset and so they re-calibrate their place of stay.

Are microbes staging a comeback?

Yes. I would say a comeback that would scare us. There is ample evidence — cholera in Haiti in 2010, then came the avian influenza and MRSA, Ebola, Nipah, bird flu, monkey fever. It seems obvious that the microbes were staging a comeback.

Which is the most dangerous pandemic?
At present it is coronavirus because we know very little about the virus and we have no medicines or vaccines against it. But if you look at history, it is cholera, a pathogen that has caused seven pandemics; scientists say the eighth one is on its way. We often think that cholera is a poor person’s disease; that may be true today, but when cholera first emerged — when it was a novel pathogen like today’s coronavirus — it infected the most advanced cities of its day, from New York and London to Paris.

In the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged – all because of human greed or carelessness.

In an inter-connected globalised world, how can countries check such an outbreak?

It may sound strange, but experts can actually predict where a contagion will hit next, simply by measuring the number of direct flights between infected and uninfected cities. We should build strong prediction models. Afterall, viruses too have cycles. We should be able to predict these cycles.

So, what are the solutions?

We need to urgently protect our fragile wildlife habitat so that animal microbes stay in their bodies. We should reduce our massive, unplanned and growing footprint across the planet. I would list the following solutions: One, respect environment; treat nature’s rules as sacrosanct; give animals and birds their space.

Two, instead of piling up nuclear arsenals, every country should have a rapid response force to tackle the outbreak of pandemics caused by dangerous viruses. One must realise that viruses become smarter and sharper by tweaking their structure, in short, they are known to mutate. Once they mutate, your frontline drugs would be useless. You will need to invent new drugs and vaccines. We are living in a dangerous world and leaders should realise that fire-fighting is not a solution, prevention is.  

Three: Zoonoses have killed millions of people in the 21st century (several times more than all the wars and terrorist attacks put together). Their economic cost has ranged from a few billion dollars in the case of regional outbreaks to several trillion dollars for pandemics. They are not a national issue; they are global and require a global response.

There is an urgent global need for a universal code of conduct to address zoonoses. The faster we do it, better are the chances for keeping away pandemics. 

About The Author:

R Shankar was Former Editor, The New Indian Express, Karnataka and Kerala. He has over 30 years of experience and continues to contribute articles to various publications and online platforms.

He was instrumental in launching niche publications including Science Express, Health, Woman’s Life, City Express in Hyderabad and Vizag, full-fledged editions of The New Indian Express in Tirupati and Rajahmundry.
He was also Managing Editor, Nyusu online one-minute news video in six languages; Consultant Editor, News Time Now. Apart from contributing articles, he is involved in teaching and grooming journalists.

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