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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.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe and is showing little sign of dissipating, with fresh outbreaks being reported in Latin America, including Brazil. Now, health experts are saying that rampant deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, could bring about a new pandemic.

Since it arrived in Brazil, COVID-19 has divided the nation. One side calls for strict social isolation measures to contain the virus, while the other says that everyone should get back to work now, except for the elderly and most vulnerable.

These conflicting views are evident even in the heart of the government. President Jair Bolsonaro in a recent television broadcast declared that hysteria has gripped the country over a disease that he calls “no worse than a mild flu.” His Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, disputes that, telling Brazilians to stay home.

Misinformation is rife. Rumors proliferate on social media, particularly regarding the number of deaths, while the government discredits the mainstream press, as it tries to report the rapidly developing pandemic and inform the public.

This scenario is not new. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro and his administration have smeared scientists trying to alert the population over the risks of global warming, or critical of the undermining of federal environmental regulations and agencies. In the first half of 2019, there were conflicting reports within the government itself and among scientists and NGOs about the scale and seriousness of deforestation and, later in the year, regarding the extent of Amazon fires and their close link to major forest clearing.

However, behind all this raucous debate, it is becoming clear to experts that COVID-19 and deforestation in the Amazon could be linked — both being products of the natural and human devastation brought by an invasion of the world’s remaining forests through the rapid expansion of timber harvesting, mineral extraction, industrial agribusiness and transportation infrastructure.

Even as the outbreak of COVID-19 is being possibly linked to the wildlife trade and humanity’s destruction of biodiversity, researchers say that the growing momentum of Amazon deforestation is creating conditions for the eruption of future pandemics.

Indeed, there are signs that this may already be happening.

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Deforestation Roars Ahead, Risking Rise of New Diseases

In 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level in ten years (9,762 square kilometers, or 3,769 square miles). Importantly, in protected indigenous reserves, it increased even faster, expanding by 74 percent in 2019 under Bolsonaro as compared to 2018. Amazon deforestation rates continue escalating in 2020, doubling from August 2019 to March 2020, compared with the same period in 2018-19.

That’s not only bad news for wildlife and indigenous peoples. It is well understood among scientists that major deforestation can lead to the emergence of dangerous new viruses and bacteria against which humanity has little defense, leading to epidemics and pandemics.

“Wild vertebrates, particularly rodents, bats and primates, harbor pathogens that are novel to the human immune system and, if we clear their habitat and put ourselves in closer contact with them, we can increase the risk that a spillover event occurs, introducing a novel pathogen,” Andy MacDonald, an ecologist specializing in disease at the Institute of Geosciences at the University of California, told Mongabay.

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London (UCL), part of London University, says that researchers have long known that animal-borne infectious diseases are an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.” In 2008, she was part of a research team that determined that at least 60% of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated with non-human animals.

One of the principal drivers of this transfer of diseases from wild animals to humans occurs as the result of habitat disturbance — especially the disruption of tropical forests.

“Approximately one in three outbreaks of new and emerging illnesses is linked to changes in land use, like deforestation,” explained Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a not-for-profit organization based in New York. Daszak was lead author in a study entitled “Infectious disease emergence and economics of altered landscapes” published last year. That paper notes that “diseases causally linked to land change use include deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika Virus.” Preliminary research indicates we can now likely add COVID-19 to that list — the most devastating pandemic to strike humanity since the 1918-19 flu which killed upwards of 50 million people.

One way deforestation leads to the emergence of new diseases is through fire. In mid-August 2019, a group of international experts on zoonotic diseases (that is, illnesses transmitted from animals to humans), met in Colombia to analyze the impact of the wildfires then underway in the Amazon. In their statement, they warned: “The Amazon region of Brazil, endemic for many communicable or zoonotic diseases can, after a wildfire, trigger a selection for survival, and with it change the habitat and behaviors of some animal species. These can be reservoirs of zoonotic bacteria, viruses, and parasites.”

This wildfire scenario has already played out elsewhere. In 1988, huge fires in Indonesia created conditions allowing the emergence of the Nipah virus, which has a morbidity rate of between 40% and 70%. Researchers believe that the outbreak of fires there caused fruit bats to flee their forest homes, seeking food in orchards. Then pigs ate the fruit that the bats had nibbled, becoming infected with the virus, ultimately infecting local people, who began to die from brain hemorrhages. Amazon fires are expected to grow far worse, as agribusiness uses it as a tool to clear rainforest, and as climate change intensifies drought there.

Fever Follows in Wake of Environmental Ruin

In fact, there are already Brazilian examples of a major environmental disruption provoking disease. One such incident concerns the bursting of the Mariana iron mining tailings dam on the Doce River in Minas Gerais state in 2015, which killed 19 people and was regarded at the time as the most serious environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

Biologist Márcia Chame, from Fiocruz, a foundation specializing in the science and technology of health, believes that a major surge in yellow fever cases in Minas Gerais in 2016-17, leading to the state government decreeing a state of emergency, was partly the result of the disaster which polluted 500 miles of river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Chame argues that the bursting of the dam, which led to “an avalanche of 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste,” pouring into the Doce River, severely affected animals in the surrounding watershed, making them less resistant to disease.

“An abrupt change in the environment will have an impact on animals, including monkeys. With the stress of the disaster and the lack of food, they become more susceptible to illnesses, including yellow fever.” Chame says that many monkeys in the Doce watershed fell ill with yellow fever. Those monkeys were then bitten by mosquitoes, who in turn bit humans, bringing the disease to the region’s towns. According to her, mosquitoes — particularly Haemagogus leucocelaenus and H. janthinomys — were “driven by landscape modifications, with forest fragments running in peri-urban areas, allowing enough interaction [between monkeys, mosquitos and people] to produce such an epidemic.”

Similar processes may well be underway in the Amazon, though going mostly unexamined and undetected. A study published last year, entitled “Development, environmental degradation and disease spread in the Brazilian Amazon” concluded that “too little attention has focused on the emergence and reemergence of vector-borne diseases that directly impact the local population, with spillover effects on other neighboring areas.”

Severe forest disturbance is already known to contribute to the expansion of known diseases like malaria, says MacDonald. “The primary mosquito vector in Latin America does really well in recently cleared patches of forest, on the margins of the remaining forest (where there is more standing water for breeding, higher temperatures which can facilitate faster development of the mosquito and malaria parasite, as well as increase human biting rates). With people settled in these cleared patches… it can increase malaria transmission.”

Comparing satellite images and health data, MacDonald, together with Erin Mordecai from Stanford University, determined that deforestation in the whole of the Amazon Basin has helped lead to a significant increase in malaria. MacDonald told Mongabay that the research team calculated that in 2008 a 10% rise in deforestation, that is, about 1,600 square kilometers (618 square miles) of additional forest cut, led to a 3.3% increase in malaria transmission. That amounted to an additional 9,980 cases across the region.

Bolsonaro Paves the Way for More Deforestation

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Brazilian Congress now stands ready to vote, turning a temporary 120-day Provisional Measure decreed by Bolsonaro in December 2019, into permanent law. Provisional Measure (MP) 910, instead of curbing illegal land invasions, rewards land grabbers who illegally felled forest on public lands in Amazonia before December 2018 — regularizing their illegal occupation by allowing the purchase of the property at greatly reduced prices, turning it from public to private. Essentially, the measure allows land grabbers to break the law and get away with it.

According to a technical note issued by the not-for-profit organization, IMAZON, the MP could lead to the deforestation of up to 16,000 square kilometers (6,178 square miles) by 2027, an area ten times larger than the area that led to an increase of nearly ten thousand new cases of malaria in the MacDonald study.

Under the present terms of MP 910, authorities are not required to check the validity of any claim made by a potential landowner for properties under 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres) in size — a stipulation that supposedly benefits small-scale farmers.

But Amazon land grabbers are extremely skilled at bypassing such regulatory limits. One very common practice is to utilize laranjas (literally oranges, but more accurately, stooges). The big landowners get relatives, friends or employees to register a small plot in their names, avoiding federal oversight. Later, the laranjas hand the property over to the land grabber, sometimes in exchange for a small payment.

If a landowner employs 20 laranjas, each registering a plot of 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres), he ends up with a property of 50,000 hectares (111,000 acres). Another worrying consequence is that land grabbers can seize land occupied by indigenous communities who lack deeds, as is happening with the Sateré-Mawe indigenous group in Amazonas state.

MP 910 also allows those who have already benefited from the regularization of invaded public lands, but who have sold that property, to join the queue again requesting a new plot. Although she recognizes the need to sort out the current anarchy over landownership in the Amazon, Suely Araujo, former president of IBAMA, the government’s environmental agency, is critical of the MP. “With this flexibility, and without separating big landowners from small ones, this law legalizes those who live from land invasion, deforestation and the sale of public land,” she told Mongabay.

On March 27, Minister Alexandre Moraes, a member of the Federal Supreme Court, Brazil’s court of last resort, issued a preliminary ruling for facilitating the approval of Provisional Measures. Even though the intention is to fast-track urgent measures during the COVID-19 crisis, environmentalists fear that the ruralist lobby will take advantage of this new procedure to push ahead more energetically with their agenda. “If there isn’t a political decision to withdraw MP 910 from the measures to be voted through, we run the risk of a serious environmental reverse during this [health] crisis,” warned Araújo.

Greater Risks Ahead

Even as Brazilian deforestation rates soar, and land use laws in the Amazon basin are undermined, indigenous peoples across Latin America are trying to draw attention to the gravity of the global environmental crisis, which they believe caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Coronavirus is telling the world what indigenous peoples have been saying for thousands of years — if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this, and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, an indigenous man from Costa Rica at a press conference organized by Covering Climate Now in New York City in mid-March.

Another indigenous leader at that meeting, Dinamam Tuxá, coordinator of APIB (the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), was just as vehement: “The cure for the next pandemic, and even for this one, can be found in the biodiversity in our indigenous lands,” he argued. “This is why we need to protect our lands and rights, because the future of life depends on it.” In contrast, Bolsonaro is pushing legislation through Congress that would allow large-scale mining, oil and gas drilling, and industrial agribusiness within Brazil’s indigenous reserves, largely without input from the people living there.

Experts continue warning urgently that more pandemics lie ahead. “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told Scientific American. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”

John Scott, head of Sustainability Risk with the Zurich Insurance Group, referring to the Ebola, SARS, MERS, and other recent epidemics, offers a similar message: “The past 20 years of disease outbreaks could be viewed as a series of near-miss catastrophes, which have led to complacency rather than the increased vigilance necessary to control outbreaks.”

Climate Change, Deforestation, Successive Pandemics

Scientists were not startled by the COVID-19 pandemic; they’d been warning the world about such an event for decades. Similarly, many won’t be surprised if the much neglected climate crisis reaches a point of no return, with far more serious impacts for the world — including massive Amazon tree die off and huge atmosphere-destabilizing carbon releases, driven not only by policies favorable to land grabbers, but due to a drastic decline in Amazon rainfall and an increase in fires. Indeed, many say that these multiple crises are intertwined.

One great challenge of the post-COVID-19 world will require that civilization somehow recover from the global economic recession (or depression) it causes without further aggravating the climate crisis via the mass conversion of forests to gold, zinc and bauxite mines, or to cattle ranches and soy plantations. The danger: if tropical deforestation continues out of control, we may barely recover from one pandemic before being faced by another.

The next plague could arise nearly anywhere: in the increasingly disrupted Amazon, the Congo, Indonesia, or even far beyond the tropical zone, in the Arctic, where permafrost is melting rapidly, possibly thawing out unknown and dormant viruses that could unleash the next planetwide health crisis. In this sense, COVID-19 — horrific as its outcomes could be — may only be a harbinger of far worse pandemics to come.

Featured image by: quapan

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Thais Borges and Sue Branford, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

A new survey by Ipsos conducted in 14 countries finds that 71% of adults globally agree that, in the long term, the climate crisis is as serious as the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey also shows widespread support for government actions to prioritise the climate crisis in the economic recovery post-COVID-19, at 65%.

Respondents in China were the most likely to believe that in the long-term, the climate crisis is as serious as the pandemic at 87%, while Americans and Australians recorded the lowest rate of agreement at 59%.

In connection with this, 37% cited the climate crisis as the most important environmental issue globally. Other environmental issues flagged by respondents are air pollution (33%) and dealing with the amount of waste we generate (32%), followed by deforestation (26%) and water pollution (25%). 

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68% agree that if governments do not act now to combat the climate crisis, then they will be failing their citizens. 57% say that they would be put off voting for a political party who does not take the crisis seriously. 

To lower their personal carbon footprints, 41% said they are likely to avoid flying in the next year, while 41% say they are likely to eat less meat, or replace the meat in some meals with alternatives. 

However, agreement that human activity contributes to the climate crisis has fallen in some European countries between 2014 and 2020- by 14% in Germany, 9% in Italy and 8% in France- as well as elsewhere in the world- 17% in Brazil, 16% in China and Japan, and 12% in Russia- however this can be largely attributed to an increase in the proportion of older people who are online. This sentiment has seen no significant change in the US and Great Britain.

The survey was conducted online among more than 28 000 adults between April 16 and April 19 2020.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recently released a report saying that renewable energy could in fact power economic growth post-COVID-19 by spurring global GDP gains of almost US$100 trillion between now and 2050. 

Some countries, like the US, are using the pandemic as an excuse to roll back laws that protect the environment; the international community must hold them accountable because as one of the biggest contributors to global warming, they are playing a massive role in creating the conditions that will make the planet uninhabitable for many of the global population. This is unfair and must be addressed.

The survey makes it clear that citizens believe the climate crisis should be more prioritised in government policies post-virus. It is imperative that governments make the benefits of decarbonisation widely known and follow through with policies that support this ideology to decrease the chances of a pandemic of this scale happening again. 

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