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Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution. There is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. How does air pollution as an environmental health hazard contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in societies ? And how does it play a role in further affecting human health in this pandemic?

It has been widely established that air pollution compromises the respiratory system. According to the WHO, ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have discovered that excess pressure may be exerted on the patient’s respiratory system due to air pollution.  

How Air Pollution as an Environmental Health Hazard Could Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19

A previous ecological study conducted during the SARS pandemic of 2003 that affected parts of China, Hong Kong and Canada discovered a positive correlation between SARS-related deaths and ambient air pollution in both short-term and long-term exposure. Given the close relationship and similarities in the symptoms of COVID-19 and SARS, it is anticipated that a similar observation may be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides an indication of how air pollution may affect a person infected with COVID-19. 

pre-print (i.e. studies awaiting peer-review) ecological study from Harvard University investigates whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the US. The study found that even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related fatality.

Some scholars however, argue that an ecological study cannot be regarded as epidemiology due to ecological bias (i.e. lack of individual-level data), therefore it is unable to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. There are also multiple factors involved that may affect the results, for example, the temporal difference of the virus outbreak among the individual county, and the intervention time of the county to adopt physical distancing policies. Consequently, the study may overestimate the risk of COVID-19-related deaths owing to air pollution.     

This positive correlation between increased death rates due to COVID-19 and air pollution has also been observed in Italy. Northern Italy is one of the most polluted areas in Europe, where a higher level of mortality related to the COVID-19 virus was discovered. A study concluded that the high air pollution loading could be a co-factor causing the high fatality rate due to the COVID-19 infection.  

Prior exposure to air pollution may aggravate the health impacts of COVID-19 and increase the risk of death by suppressing immunity. A systematic review has identified that people with prior chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, respiratory system disease and cardiovascular disease could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 by triggering pro-inflammatory responses and causing immunity impairment.      

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Does Air Pollution Affect the Viral Spread of COVID-19?

It is believed that the main route of transmission of the virus is through human respiratory droplets and direct contact, according to the Joint Mission report from China in late February. Yet, it has also been hypothesised that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by particulate matter (PM) and aerosols. A preliminary experimental analysis was conducted which identified the gene of COVID-19 in an ambient PM sample in Italy, and concluded that PM may potentially act as a transporter of the virus, although the virulence of COVID-19 remains unknown (i.e. vitality of the virus). Scientists also suggest that PM may serve as an early indicator of the epidemic recurrence by identifying the virus genome in PM. 

Current Air Quality Improvement From Lockdowns

Many countries have been locked down to maintain physical distancing among citizens to slow down the viral spread of COVID-19. The lockdowns have not only helped to reduce viral transmission but also the air pollution. A preprint study in China estimated that the lockdown mitigated a quarter of PM2.5 emissions and improved the Air Quality Index, helping prevent monthly premature deaths of 24 000 to 36 000 people.

The NO2 level also dropped dramatically after the lockdown (NO2 irritates human airways and impairs immunity to lung infections). Another study from China estimated that the improved NO2 levels from January to March due to the imposed lockdowns helped prevent more than 8,000 NO2 -related deaths, 65% of which are due to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Fossil fuel burning is one of the major anthropogenic sources of air pollution. A study modelled that emissions from fossil fuel combustion is one of the major causes of air pollution, which contributes to 65% of additional mortality due to the exposure. Given that renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel burning, a transition to renewable energy is essential to mitigate the climate crisis.    

The plausible linkage between air pollution and viral spread still requires more thorough studies to confirm the hypothesis. Air pollution, on the other hand, has long been proving its harmful effect on human health and causes a burden on healthcare systems. The preliminary studies that have shown a possible link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 related deaths, no matter how small, should be an indication that air pollution needs to be urgently tackled. A global transition to cleaner energy will help safeguard the health of humanity and prevent these unnecessary deaths.

Local governments should focus on mitigating air pollution to address the urgent issue of deaths caused by COVID-19, rather than aspire towards eliminating air pollution altogether. The positive effects of localised lockdown regulations in alleviating air pollution can be a blueprint towards this end. Without invoking a national mandate, discriminative regulations should be introduced that focus on areas more severely affected by COVID-19 or air pollution. Measures could include designating times for motor vehicle use, reducing smoke from agricultural and waste burning around cities, and pausing activities which create dust plumes such as construction while expanding public sanitation services and related employment to keep streets cleaner. 

New research has found that a small rise in people’s long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an 11% increase in deaths from COVID-19. Another recent study suggests that 15% of all COVID-19 deaths around the world can be attributed to dirty air. The studies show the urgent need to reduce levels of air pollution around the world, particularly in virus hotspots, so as to potentially reduce the number of fatalities. 

It is important to note that while the available data only establishes correlations, not connections and that further work is needed, the researchers say that the evidence is now strong enough that levels of air pollution must be considered a key factor in handling COVID-19 outbreaks.

The new analysis is based on research reported by the Guardian earlier this year, which has since been reviewed by independent scientists and published in Science Advances journal. The consideration of new data and more factors that may influence COVID-19 death rates refined the rise in deaths from 15% down to 11%. The study considered the impact of a single-unit rise in average particle pollution over 16 years before the pandemic on COVID-19 deaths in 3 089 US counties, covering 98% of the population. 

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It included the 116 747 deaths up to 18 June, when the study was submitted for review, and considered more than 20 other factors, including population densities, state-level stay-at-home orders, hospital bed provision and social and economic status.

Breathing polluted air has already been linked to heart and lung disease, and these illnesses make COVID-19 infections worse. Additionally, short-term exposure to air pollution is known to increase the risk of acute lung infections. 

Ideally, to confirm the link between air pollution and COVID-19, a large number of patients could be assessed on an individual level, so that their age, smoking history and other details can be taken into account. However, such data is not yet available so researchers have used data on groups of people. While this may indicate a link, it may hide important individual factors. 

Professor Francesca Dominici at Harvard University, who led the analysis, says that there is now enough evidence to act immediately. She says, “We already have an overwhelming amount of evidence of the adverse health effects of fine particle pollution, so even without COVID, we should implement more stringent regulation. But the amount of COVID-related evidence is also big enough now that there is absolutely nothing to lose, and only benefits, to prioritise some of the more vulnerable areas.”

This could include cutting pollution and increasing healthcare and PPE availability in the most polluted places, she says. 

The second study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, used global air pollution data and studies including the above work to estimate the proportion of COVID-19 deaths attributable to long-term exposure to polluted air. 

The team concluded that 15% of worldwide deaths may have resulted from the damage that polluted air causes to the heart and lungs. The team also made estimates for countries and found that 27% of COVID-19 deaths in China are attributable to air pollution, 26% in Germany, 18% in the US and 14% in the UK. 

Again, it is important to note that while it is extremely likely that there is a link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths, more studies are needed to definitively prove so. However, this should guide decision makers in their plans to mitigate air pollution.

Featured image by: Flickr  

As the world races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, conservationists are concerned that at least half a million sharks could be killed for their liver oil once one is found. 

According to Science Times, shark liver oil is primarily made of squalene, which helps control sharks’ buoyancy in deep water. The substance is also found in plants, humans and other animals and is used as a moisturising agent in cosmetics. Medically, squalene is used in vaccines as an “adjuvant,” meaning that it can elicit a stronger immune response, making them more effective. 

Squalene has an “excellent safety record,” according to the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has been used in flu vaccines since 1997. It could also reduce the amount of vaccine needed per person, according to local news reports. 

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Shark Allies, a group fighting against the overfishing of sharks, says that there are five COVID-19 vaccine candidates using squalene. One of these is called MF59, which contains around 9.75mg of squalene per dose. The group estimates that if MF59 is used to treat everyone in the world, nearly 250 000 sharks will be killed. If two doses are needed- which is likely, according to experts- nearly half a million sharks will die. 

One British company currently using shark squalene in flu vaccines plans to manufacture a billion doses of the substance for potential use in COVID-19 vaccines by May 2021. About 3 000 sharks are killed to extract a tonne of squalene.

The group is petitioning the US Food and Drug Administration, Europe, China and all vaccine developers to remove the substance or find an alternative that doesn’t require sharks. The group also notes that there are vaccines in development that do not require squalene and have encouraged these instead

Plant-based oils can be harvested from yeast, wheat germ, sugarcane and olive oil, but these are more expensive and difficult to extract than shark-based squalene. 

Shark populations are vulnerable because they reproduce in low numbers and mature slowly; already, the squalene industry kills around 3 million sharks every year. Great whites, hammerheads and whale sharks are most often targeted for their livers. Deep-sea sharks are particularly vulnerable because their livers contain more squalene than other species as it helps them adapt to their environment.

Featured image by: Flickr

According to a research report by shopping comparison site, Finder.Com, the UK could be sending 53.5 million single-use blue surgical masks to the landfill every day, totalling 1.6 billion every month. 

The research found that over half (51%) of those surveyed in the UK say that they use blue surgical masks, equalling 26.7 million people. The report assumes that people are likely using at least two masks a day as they are intended to be single-use; this would result in 53.5 million disposable masks being used to slow the spread of COVID-19 every day. 

Over a month, this amounts to 1.6 billion masks being sent to the landfill in the UK, where they take between 20 and 30 years to biodegrade. This is enough to cover the whole area of London in under two days and reach the moon in two-and-a-half days. 

While this figure is shocking, it is important to note that the research report surveyed 2 000 people throughout Great Britain. However, the pandemic has nonetheless seen a tremendous surge in the amount of waste generated- be it masks or plastic takeaway containers. Take Wuhan, for example. The Chinese city which has been at the epicentre of the pandemic and which is home to over 11 million people, is reported to have generated 200 tons of clinical trash on a single day (24 February 2020), four times the amount the city’s only dedicated facility can incinerate per day. 

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Hong Kong-based oceans NGO, OceansAsia reported a stark increase in marine debris and microplastics build-up in Hong Kong since January, and found large quantities of face masks littered along beaches and rural suburbs. On a beach in Lantau Island, the organisation reported finding 70 face masks disposed across an area just 100 meters long, with an additional 30 washed up on shore. This raised concern among members as the area is relatively uninhabited and is difficult to access, providing insight into potential larger littering figures across more popular beaches.

The report also outlines ways to dispose of masks correctly and hygienically, including washing your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water before putting on a mask, covering your mouth and nose with the mask and ensuring that there are no gaps between your face and the mask, avoiding touching the mask while you are wearing it, replacing the mask with a new one when it is damp and not reusing single-use masks and removing the mask from behind and discarding immediately.

Featured image by: Flickr


In February 2018, a panel of experts presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) a list of diseases that posed public health risks but for which there were no countermeasures. On the list were Ebola, SARS, Zika, Rift Valley Fever and “Disease X.” This disease would be caused by a pathogen never seen in humans before and would originate from animals somewhere in the world where people had invaded wildlife habitats. It would be deadlier than seasonal influenza but would spread just as easily between people. It would be the world’s next pandemic. That prediction has been realised less than two years later; beginning in Wuhan, China late last year, “Disease X,” or COVID-19, has now infected nearly 30 million people and killed nearly 1 million people. As humans encroach on wildlife more as the population grows, zoonotic diseases will emerge more often. Can we predict and spot viruses that have the potential to become pandemics early, and stop them before it happens? The Global Virome project is looking to do just that. 

Dennis Carroll is the former US director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats; under Barack Obama, Carroll ran the US government’s PREDICT programme, that aimed to be an early warning system for future outbreaks of pandemics. By the time Donald Trump shut it down in 2019, PREDICT had collected more than two million mucus and saliva samples from thousands of bird and mammal species from virus hunters, universities, conservationists and natural history museums around the world. It has identified 949 novel viruses, created a database of known viruses in wildlife and trained nearly 7 000 scientists, lab technicians and field workers in 30 countries to look out for emerging diseases. 

However, this is a fraction of what’s out there. Dr Carroll and his team made a statistical estimate that the world’s mammals and birds are host to between 700 000 and 2.6 million as-yet unknown species from families of viruses that have shown the potential to cause zoonotic disease in humans. Of these, between 350 000 and 1.3 million could have zoonotic potential

Carroll now chairs the Global Virome project, a 10-year plan to build on the work of PREDICT and discover and genetically record all of the world’s unknown viral threats- a tall order. It has been described as “the beginning of the end of the pandemic era,” and “a change from responding to threats to proactively preparing for them strike.” 

The search itself will help reduce the risk of pathogen spillover by identifying zoonosis hotspots, most of which occur in less developed, tropical countries, and enhancing monitoring capabilities in these areas. 

The costs of cataloging what Carroll calls “biological dark matter” will be about USD$3.7 billion over the next 10 years, but this, he says, is “trivial compared to the cost of just this latest pandemic.” He says that a scaled back version- one that focuses on the highest-risk countries, the groups of people most vulnerable to outbreaks within those countries and the species most likely to be sources of spillover- might get 70% of the data for a quarter of the money. 

The goal of the project is to have an open repository of the genetic makeup of all the world’s most dangerous viruses to better predict and prepare for outbreaks of pandemics and allow drug companies to develop drugs and vaccines in advance. Until now, zoonotic disease prediction has relied on surveillance and preparedness. Carroll says, “Surveillance has primarily focused on identifying early cases of a virus, identifying the first case and then responding. But any virus that poses a future threat already exists. So why wait for it?” 

“We need to understand viruses and their ecosystems better, gain a better understanding of hotpots. Compare weather forecasting: 50 years ago it was very limited, we could forecast a hurricane two days out. Now we can forecast them on an annual basis, pick them up off the coast of west Africa, and make pretty precise predictions.”

He carries on, “We’re at the stage now with viruses where weather forecasting was 50 years ago. We have some data but we need much more and we need to run it through models like meteorologists do. We want to move the world of virology on from being a Mom-and-Pop operation. There are 4 500 coronaviruses alone. Why can’t we document them in their entirety? PREDICT showed us we could do it.”

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Why is This Project Needed?

As seen at the WHO in 2018, scientists have been warning of a zoonotic pandemic for decades. The UN warns that more of them will emerge. There are a few reasons for this: as the global human population grows, more people are infiltrating and destroying wild ecosystems, where they encounter new animal infections; there are poor systems in place for early diseases detection and containment; a lack of vaccines and drugs, and research and development for “emerging” diseases. 

Six out of 10 infectious diseases that affect us come from animals. This includes HIV/AIDS, Ebola, MERS, SARS and COVID-19. There is clearly a need to stem the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. 

The world’s response to COVID-19 has been similar to SARS in 2002 and the H5N1 avian influenza in 2005: move to a costly panic mode intended to slow the spread of the disease while scientists work to develop a vaccine. This, Peter Daszak, director of the EcoHealth Alliance, says, “is not a plan.” 

The cost of sequencing the DNA and RNA in which viruses store their genes has, since the second half of the 2000s, fallen exponentially, which has made virus hunting possible on a previously unimaginable scale. This should quell any concerns that projects to predict pandemics, like the Global Virome, would be financially unfeasible. 

How Can We Prevent Pandemics?

Richard Osfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says that the best way to predict zoonotic diseases may be to narrow research to where humans are disturbing natural environments the most. The great zoonotic threats are not in wild nature, he says, but where natural areas have been converted to cropland, pastures and urban areas. 

Research also shows that large animal farms create the conditions conducive to bacteria and other pathogens spreading between animals and humans. Sam Sheppard, who conducted the research, says that the consumption of fresh meat- which has quadrupled since 1961- has increased the chance of animal diseases infecting humans. He says, “The overuse of antibiotics, crowded conditions, unnatural diets and genetic similarity make factory farms hotbeds for pathogens to spread among animals and potentially to emerge and infect humans.”

Other ways to predict pandemics could lie in more precise tracking of which pathogens are actually infecting humans. Some researchers say that too often, clinicians tend to diagnose many human infections as colds or diarrhea instead of identifying the pathogen. 

Further, the 2005 revision of the WHO’s International Health Regulations required countries to inform one another of outbreaks with the potential to spread. The treaty also required rich countries to help poor countries conduct their own disease monitoring, but rich countries have neglected it. 

There is also the need to plug any gaps between scientific warnings and government action. For example, in 2005, hundreds of bat viruses similar to SARS-CoV were discovered, and in 2013, it was found that some were already able to infect humans. This should have pushed governments to focus on developing coronavirus vaccines and drugs, but this did not transpire.  

Arguably most importantly, we must address the aspects of modern life that exacerbate the spread of unknown pathogens, like deforestation and consumption of wildlife. Until this happens, zoonotic diseases will continue to emerge and spread.  

Peter Daszak says, “We are in the age of pandemics. We treat pandemics as a disaster-response issue. We wait for them to happen and hope a vaccine or drug can be developed quickly in their aftermath. But there still is no vaccine available for the SARS virus of 2002–03, nor for HIV/AIDS or Zika, or a host of emerging pathogens. We need to start working on prevention in addition to responses.”

He and his team came up with a three-layered defence to predict and stop future pandemics. First, a worldwide effort is needed to find and track the hundreds of thousands of as-yet unknown pathogens that could threaten us. Second, monitoring of blood samples and other indicators from people living in places where new diseases are most likely to emerge is needed and third, a programme to employ all the data collected is needed that will get a head-start in the development of drugs and vaccines.

“Pandemics are like terrorist attacks,” he says. “We know roughly where they originate and what’s responsible for them, but we don’t know exactly when the next one will happen. They need to be handled the same way – by identifying all possible sources and dismantling those before the next pandemic strikes.”

As states begin to reopen and people start to venture outdoors, they may notice new, previously unseen forms of pollution- face masks and gloves. The world has been on lockdown for about three months, and masks and gloves are now littering the streets. Moreover, they are already starting to wash up on beaches around the world. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s broadcaster reported that conservation group OceansAsia found about 100 discarded masks on an uninhabited island a few nautical miles from Hong Kong. These items have never been spotted in that remote location before.

Gloves, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are key to keeping us safe, especially as we began to ease the lockdown rules. Yet, the environmental watchdogs worry that all that PPE will flow into the ocean. ” If they’re thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea,” biologist Anastasia Miliou at the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece told Deutsche Welle.

To make things worse, the discarded PPE presents a particularly nasty problem for marine life—because of how it’s made, according to John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example,” Hocevar told CNN. “The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”

The environmentalists have reasons to worry. The world’s oceans are already drowning in plastic pollution. Every year, about 300 million tons of plastic is produced and 5 to 13 million tons of it washes into the ocean, according to the 2015 figures. The same paper lists that about 269,000 tons of the plastic floats in the ocean currents. As larger plastic debris breaks into smaller pieces, birds, turtles, and fish mistake it for food and gobble it up, which can perforate their stomachs, damage their intestines, or deprive them of nourishment, leading to starvation. Marine mammals and turtles commonly get caught into the discarded fishing gear and other items. And masks and gloves are choking hazards.

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Humans live on land, but they suffer from marine pollution too. As one study notes, Homo sapiens has lived for half a century in a throwaway society, but no “away” exists. The trash we toss away comes back to us, and as the masks example above demonstrates, it only takes a few weeks. Plastic leaches into our drinking water, too—research found that we consume a spoonful of plastic a week. And the microscopic plastic bits dissolved in the ocean water, interfere with the healthy function of Prochlorococcus—the ocean’s invisible forests that produce ten percent of all oxygen we breathe.

Some organizations are finding ways to upcycle plastic ocean-bound waste into usable materials. Fashion company Rothy’s makes bags from the plastic bottles fished out of the sea. Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) just partnered with Rash’R, a company that sells eco-friendly clothes to make masks from the plastic that once polluted the ocean.

That does divert a certain amount of plastic from the ocean currents. But while these masks aren’t single-use, they too may one day end up in the sea, if not recycled properly. Still, many face masks and gloves will remain single-use, exacerbating the pollution problem. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey prompted a discussion of how to recycle half a million flooded cars. The amount of single-use masks and gloves discarded during the coronavirus pandemic will likely make a research subject soon.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by Lina Zeldovich, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, medical science and big data have helped countries navigate the crisis. Meanwhile, countries that have ignored this science have seen high infection and death rates, such as America and Brazil. As medical science is playing a vital role in returning to normal post-COVID-19, will we see similar support for climate science?

For months, the world has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic, with some countries having more success than others. Studies have been conducted to provide clear and practical guidance on how to keep coronavirus at bay. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to gain a better understanding of the virus and are racing to find a vaccine that will keep the virus at bay and allow leaders to reopen economies. 

With such urgency, science has taken the center stage. Leaders have turned to scientists to communicate the latest findings and it is these findings that are the basis of the decisions they make to contain the spread of the virus, such as when to implement lockdowns and social distancing measures and when to ease them.

Countries that have tackled the pandemic better than others are those that have strictly followed scientific advice. New Zealand, which implemented a national lockdown early, has kept infection rates extremely low, with 1548 infections, and has reported 22 deaths at the time of publishing. Meanwhile, Taiwan, an island of 23 million, has less than 500 confirmed cases and 7 fatalities thanks to its extensive efforts to incorporate big data analysis into testing, contact tracing and quarantining.

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On the other hand, there are important lessons to learn from countries that ignore science during the coronavirus crisis. The US, which ignored warnings from health experts for months, has become one of the worst-hit countries, confirming over 5 million cases and the highest death toll in the world with over 160 000 related deaths. 

Even as the virus has torn through the US, President Donald Trump had continuously ignored experts and insisted that the economy be fully reopened, a move deemed too early and dangerous. An example is California, which was the first state to order a lockdown. In May, California slowly reopened some of their counties, but as soon as the COVID-19 cases surged again in mid-July, the state reimposed restrictions.

Trump, long known for downplaying science, has drawn heavy criticism for dismissing the dangers of the coronavirus and being slow to roll out control measures, such as making test kits available, in the early weeks of the pandemic. The delayed coronavirus response has highlighted how the Trump administration belittles and diminishes the role of scientific expertise. 

Climate science, in particular, has been under attack since Trump took office. The administration has challenged environmental studies that are critical about fossil fuel industries, hindered research on human-induced climate change, and rolled back environmental regulations, such as policies on mercury and automobile pollution.

The administration has also favoured and approved works by climate denialists in federal reports. Officials who have spoken out against Trump on climate change are likely to get excluded or muted at work. This has reportedly fuelled an exodus of researchers during Trump’s presidency, which undermines the government’s ability to make effective decisions.

Despite this, public trust in the work of scientists and health experts has increased, according to a number of polls and surveys. A poll conducted by the Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK showed that 64% of voters were now more likely to listen to scientific advice from experts and researchers, with 5% stating that they were less likely to do so.

However, can this growing public trust in science extend to that of a crisis that will have far more dire consequences than COVID-19?

Both coronavirus and the climate crisis are the most pressing issues of our time that need to be addressed through international cooperation. Unlike coronavirus, the climate crisis has yet to be treated with the same sense of urgency, despite there being every indication that the planet is in dire straits.

The climate crisis will severely impact human health and the economy, and is becoming more apparent through extreme weather events, natural disasters and rising sea levels—all of which will be more frequent and severe as the planet continues to warm. 

Climate science has warned us for years about the dangers of ignoring the climate crisis. The UN has warned that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 7.6% annually for the next 10 years to meet the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. In April, the world saw a 17% decrease in global CO2 emissions, however as countries reopen, global emissions have already surged in mid-June

If by 2030 nations fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half globally, the world economy could be ruined. By the end of the century, it could cost the world USD$600 trillion.

During these trying times, in which health systems are overwhelmed and millions are losing their jobs, there’s still an opportunity to help the economy recover while building a sustainable future, writes Stéphane Hallegatte, the World Bank’s lead economist with the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Governments can explore a wide range of investments, including land restoration, sanitation and sustainable transport infrastructure, like metro systems and bike lanes. These potential investments can create new jobs and income in the short term and put long-term sustainability goals into action.

This idea seems to be gaining traction. The EU, for instance, has reached an agreement on its $2 trillion coronavirus recovery plan, which also addresses climate concerns. The deal also designates 30% of the total package for climate spending. As the continent aims to become carbon neutral by 2050, the proposed package would improve clean energy and transport. Meanwhile, Democrat nominee hopeful Joe Biden has proposed spending USD$2 trillion over four years on clean energy projects and ending carbon emissions from power plants by 2035, as part of a series of economic plans aimed at jump-starting the US economy.

It is clear that with scientists and public health experts taking the lead in the fight against the pandemic, science has taken the reigns. We can only hope that this same trust put in science will extend beyond COVID-19 to the climate crisis. 

How can we learn from our response to COVID-19 to tackle other crises, such as the climate crisis? The virus has generated one of the most coordinated and wide-scale international responses to a global health crisis. €15 billion has been raised by the EU’s Coronavirus Global Response fund since May, which also includes countries outside of the EU such as Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Governments across the globe are showing their capacity, both financially and politically, to unite in the face of crisis. The gathering and processing of information, such as through “big data” approaches, as well as approaching the crisis with the right mindset, have been crucial in tracing and tackling the virus, and it is these techniques and mindsets that must be similarly used in the fight against the climate crisis. 

Where and why have some countries succeeded where others have failed in their COVID-19 response? Key to the successes of managing any crisis is the availability and accuracy of information. While raw statistics such as cases and fatalities are vital towards impact assessment, the amount and accuracy of data are also key to running projections and making predictions to better inform policy-makers on their responses. In this regard, “big data” approaches have proved essential towards gathering this data, and some of the success stories in the fight against COVID-19 could not have been possible without its usage.

While there is no universally agreed upon definition, big data approaches are characterised by the sheer volume of data gathered, for example, Walmart collects more than 2.5 petabytes of ‘raw data’ from its customers’ transactions every hour. For comparison, an old MacBook Air holds 128 gigabytes of memory space, which means Walmart is collecting around 20 000 MacBook’s worth of information every hour from its customers.

Instead of hunting for specific data during the process of data collection itself, as much raw data as possible is acquired and then analysed afterwards in order to find the desired information and patterns. This availability of large data sets allowed scientists to quickly identify the key clinical characteristics of the coronavirus through analysing patient data in Wuhan, as well as formulate predictions for the spread of the virus which proved to be accurate.

Taiwan’s quick and effective response to COVID-19 also owed much of its success to its data collection capabilities. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) had the data infrastructure in place to identify high-risk individuals (such as those who recently travelled to affected areas, or had underlying conditions) and track them through their mobile phones and GPS technologies. Data on the patient’s travel histories was also made available to all hospitals, clinics and pharmacies across Taiwan. This helped with resource allocation, such as ensuring protective equipment went to places most in need, as well as making sure Taiwan’s aggressive testing process was more efficient by testing the people most likely at risk. 

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In contrast to Taiwan, another country that was hit by the coronavirus but did not achieve as much success in their response was Italy. A key obstacle for Italy’s response was their initially limited data collection and dissemination, as their healthcare system is decentralised as per their constitution. This could be responsible for the virus circulating unnoticed within the country for a period upwards of four weeks before the initial outbreak, as experts now suggest. 

Additionally, this may have allowed for confirmation biases to form within decision-makers, as there was not enough data to ‘paint’ a clear picture of the situation, so people could interpret the data in ways which suited their biases. This led to some countries, Italy included, underestimating the virus and generating a lacklustre response from decision-makers for fear of over-reacting. In Italy’s case, because authorities initially only locked down the northern parts of the country, the panic caused many Italians to travel to the south of the country, spreading the virus in spite of the lockdown.

With regards to the climate crisis, big data approaches have allowed us to more accurately assess the impact of the climate crisis, such as tree cover loss and global temperature increases. Experts believe that big data systems could also result in more effective climate adaptations by better understanding human behaviours, resulting in better vulnerability assessments. Other researchers have used big data approaches to analyse perceptions on climate change on social media, which could help formulate better risk communication strategies. 

While the data is there, reactions towards the imminent threat of the climate crisis has not changed much. Data helps us gain a clear picture of the problem, but how we respond to the data is how we respond to the problem. In this regard, trust in information, among both policy-makers and the general population, is equally as important as the accuracy of the information.

One of the ways trust is reduced is when there is an overload of information regarding a problem or crisis, some of which is unverified, which fuels further mistrust and speculation. Especially in the age of the internet, spreading of information is easier and more far-reaching than ever, and false or unverified information gets spread along just as easily as real information. Tehe WHO has described this phenomenon as an “infodemic”, and has since become one of the priorities of the WHO in addressing COVID-19. 

A way to avoid this problem would be to legitimise certain information through official sources and institutions. In Taiwan’s case, the Office of the President made regular broadcasts which supported the data regarding the seriousness of the threat, fighting disinformation as well as legitimising the right sources. However, this method of fighting disinformation still hinges on public trust in the authorities and official institutions themselves. 

Placing more emphasis and importance on the role of data could result in a more objective and informed response towards the climate crisis, as it has for Taiwan during the COVID-19 crisis. While the accuracy and availability of data is steadily being improved with technological innovation, data can only be effective if accompanied by a proactive mindset that also responds properly to it. Therefore, it needs to be delivered in a manner that reduces misinformation, negates bias and reinforces trust among both decision-makers and the general public. 

The most important thing that the COVID-19 response can give towards tackling the climate crisis is the opportunity for us to learn from it and change our mindsets regarding how we respond to information, and therefore how we manage crises when they come.

How can we prevent the next pandemic? In an interview with Yale Environment 360, science author David Quammen says that the COVID-19 pandemic stems from “our relationship with the rest of the natural world, which is consumptive, intrusive, and disruptive.” Preventing the next pandemic requires that we rethink our current systems and change them where necessary.

In Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover, he details how as we continue to disrupt the natural world, viruses are increasingly spreading from wild animal populations to humans.

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (like Zika, Ebola, avian influenza, SARS, and MERS) that was passed from animals to humans. This is corroborated by a new study that found that domesticated animals and wildlife, like bats and rodents, are responsible for many zoonotic viruses. 

How we eat, live, travel and consume energy all influence our interaction with the rest of the natural world. In a Scientific American article, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that deforestation, intensive farming and climate change are some of the main reasons for a virus spillover into the human population. Many studies have linked deforestation, climate change and loss of biodiversity to economic situations, global production of goods and unequal resource distribution between rich and poor nations which can lead to pandemics. New pandemics will emerge unless priority is given to reducing consumption levels, eliminating wildlife trade and economic inequalities and creating sustainable production systems for people and the environment. 

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How Can We Prevent the Next Pandemic?

Ways to reduce or prevent the occurrence of the next pandemic include ensuring that our contact with wild animals is less disruptive, reducing wildlife trade, consuming less meat and lowering invasive contact with natural ecosystems. Should a pandemic still emerge, Quammen suggests real-time screening of people at airports. Matthew Gray, associate director of the University of Tennessee Center for Wildlife Health, states that the key to reducing the spread of pathogens is a ‘clean trade’ program, in which private industry and government officials work together to implement safer strategies.

In an article in National Geographic, Jonathan Kolby, who has worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service for ten years, observes that the US has no laws specifically requiring disease surveillance for wildlife entering the country, and that the vast majority of wild animal imports are therefore not tested. He adds that most countries- besides the US– lack a government agency that screens wildlife imports for pathogens.

Another crucial way to minimise or even prevent pandemics is to regulate wildlife trade and trafficking. Lee Hannah, senior scientist at Conservation International, recommends that the global wildlife trade be banned, masks and respirators stockpiled, testing infrastructure made readily available and nature taken care of, which may mean that we minimise our contact with wildlife and become more cognisant of the effects of this invasion on natural habitats.

China has announced a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, including in wet markets, like the ones at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan. China has also banned pangolin scales that are used in traditional medicine, although this has been met with controversy despite environmental and animal rights groups generally applauding the move. Finally, the country has offered buyouts to farmers who are breeding wildlife to discourage the practice.  

Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, says that anticipating outbreaks before they occur is also important. This can mean making childhood immunisation and pre-emptive vaccination campaigns a priority or having greater investment in sanitation infrastructure. For less developed countries, a healthcare system that is able to perform basic diagnostics and surveillance services would enable them to detect an outbreak as early as possible and respond quickly. 

Another solution is the One Health approach by the World Health Organization. It is a public strategy that realises the threat from new animal viruses and taps the combined expertise of livestock and wildlife veterinary surgeons, conservationists and ecologists, medical doctors and researchers to tackle it. The One Health strategy is based on the idea that human, animal and environmental health are interrelated and demands that different fields of expertise and government departments work together; however this can result in bottlenecks caused by politics and bureaucracy, according to professionals working on One Health programmes. 

It is vital that governments cooperate on a global level to stop the trade of wildlife and the rapid expansion into habitats to prevent the next pandemic. If they don’t, we can expect to see more and more outbreaks that kill innocent people and bring economies to their knees. 

Featured image by: Dan Bennett

Supermarket shelves around the world were emptied as people panic bought due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, this brought attention to the republic’s overreliance on food imports and its subsequent food security. Fortuitously, Singapore made plans in 2019 to reduce its dependence on food imports with its “30 by 30” vision, whereby 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs will be produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10% today. 

Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food supply, making it especially sensitive to any changes in the global agricultural landscape. Major importers include Malaysia, Brazil and Australia. When Malaysia announced its lockdown, many Singaporeans scrambled to supermarkets, fearing that imported food from Malaysia would suddenly be cut off. Even before COVID-19, the climate crisis already posed a threat to global food supply, negatively affecting crop yields. Additionally, the amount of fertile land in the world has fallen by 33% in 40 years, yet demand for food is expected to increase as the global population continues to rise and the affluence of developing countries grows. Hence, in times of crises, having a robust local food supply to fall back on can act as a buffer to cushion Singapore from any negative food supply shocks.

Nearly tripling local food production in 10 years seems like a daunting task, but Singapore has a robust plan to achieve this “30 by 30” vision. 

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The heightened production will be mainly focused on eggs, leafy vegetables, fruits and fish. To increase food production and achieve the “30 by 30” plan, Singapore needs to convert more spaces for urban farming. Land is a precious resource in Singapore, with 5.6 million people in an area of 721.5 km², even smaller than New York City. As of 2016, agriculture occupied 0.93% of Singapore’s land area. By creatively tapping into underused and integrated spaces, Singapore hopes to produce more in less space. Recent plans have revealed that urban farms will be developed on carpark rooftops and integrated into multi-purpose sites, one of which was initially an old school campus. Singapore Food Agency has also been collaborating with other agencies to open up more of Singapore’s southern waters for fish farms, expanding on the one that is currently in operation. 

Improving technologies to increase production efficiency is also key to ramp up food production. In the field of agri-tech, heavy research and development efforts are ongoing. At the micro level, researchers are working to discover high yield and resilient genetic species. By detecting the chemicals plants emit, researchers aim to detect their precise optimal growing conditions. At the macro level, knowing these exact conditions can help to engineer resource-efficient and productive farming systems that will raise yields as well. Many considerations will also be taken to ensure food safety, by creating new models and systems to detect and predict any safety hazards in these new foods. 

Having the infrastructure and technology in place and creating an economic environment that supports enterprises will be the next step in promoting growth in the agri-food sector. A pool of experts that are well-versed in the urban farming and food production industry can help form suitable industry regulations that will help to reduce compliance costs and ensure a high standard of food safety. Grants for high-efficiency farms such as the Agriculture Productivity Fund (AFP)’s Productivity Enhancement (PE) scheme will encourage farms to improve and upgrade their technology, while reducing business costs. To train a future network of knowledgeable and experienced professionals, Singapore has set up certified courses in urban agricultural technology and aquaculture in tertiary education institutions, as well as a SkillsFuture Programme, a subsidised skills upgrading programme for Singaporeans. 

Encouraging Singaporeans to Buy Local Produce

Most importantly, the work to increase local supply must also be met by an increase in consumer demand. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) aims to raise Singaporean’s demand for local food by raising awareness about the existence and benefits of buying homegrown food. Holding a ‘SG Farmers’ Market’ several times a year that features local farms and putting a logo on produce that marks it as homegrown are part of SFA’s plans to shine a spotlight and raise awareness of local produce.

In light of the pandemic, the government has introduced a SGD$30 million (USD$22 million) grant for local producers who can utilise high-efficiency farming systems and quickly raise their output. Producers may apply and submit their project proposals for this grant, named the 30×30 Express grant, which will help approved applicants cover up to 85% of the project costs. This is on top of the existing SGD$144 million (USD$118 million) in the Singapore Food Story R&D Program, that supports research in the agri-food sector.

Moving forward, one key way Singaporeans can help to achieve the “30 by 30” target is to support and buy from local producers, as said by Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in Singapore. Singaporeans can also look forward to hearing more about new innovative developments as a result of the 30×30 Express grant, or a new urban farm sprouting up in their neighbourhood. 

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