The COVID-19 virus sweeping around the world has caused untolled human suffering, social upheaval and economic damage. But while the spread of the current crisis is unprecedented, the new coronavirus follows a number of diseases that have emerged in recent decades, such as Ebola, AIDS, SARS, avian influenza and swine flu. All originated in animals – and there is increasing evidence that humanity’s overexploitation of nature is one of the factors behind the spread of new diseases.
Human activities have significantly altered three-quarters of the land and two-thirds of the ocean, changing the planet to such an extent as to determine the birth of a new era: the “Anthropocene.” Changes in land use that bring wildlife, livestock and humans into closer contact with each other facilitate the spread of diseases, including new strains of bacteria and viruses.
Meanwhile, illegal and uncontrolled trade of live wild animals creates dangerous opportunities for contact between humans and the diseases these creatures carry. It is no coincidence that many recent outbreaks have originated in markets that sell a mix of wild and domestic mammals, birds and reptiles, creating the conditions for the development of old and new zoonoses: infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
While many of these links are not yet fully understood, it is clear that human and planetary health are closely connected. Today’s crisis creates an urgent need for an in-depth reflection on the relationship between human beings and nature, the risks associated with current economic development pathways, and how we can better protect ourselves in the future.
Viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms have played a vital role in life on Earth for 3.8 billion years. The vast majority are absolutely harmless, and are often essential for ecosystems and human health – just think of the human microbiome or the innumerable symbioses between microbes and other organisms:
● A few microorganisms, such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses or parasitic protozoa, can have significant negative effects on human health.
● Pathogens can transform quickly, which allows them to pass from wild animals to humans. These emerging diseases endanger human lives and have major socioeconomic impacts.
● The chances of pathogens like viruses passing from wild and domestic animals to humans may be increased by the destruction and modification of natural ecosystems, the illegal or uncontrolled trade of wild species and the unhygienic conditions under which wild and domestic species are mixed and marketed.
● Human behaviour and demographic factors significantly increase these risks, and the speed with which humans travel between continents can cause the runaway spread of pandemics.
● Conserving and maintaining nature and the benefits it provides is essential for preserving our health and well-being.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses widespread in many animal species, including humans. While many have no negative effects, they can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more serious diseases such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS, which first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, which emerged in Guangdong province in southern China in 2002).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has given the disease the official name CoVID-19, short for COronaVIrus Disease-2019, while the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) has assigned the official name SARSCoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) to the virus that causes the disease. This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak. While related, the two viruses differ in two fundamental characteristics: SARS-CoV-2 has a lower mortality rate but is more contagious than SARS. The new coronavirus can cause mild symptoms such as a cold, sore throat, cough and fever, or more severe symptoms such as pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure.
While most of those infected will recover, many require hospital treatment, threatening to overwhelm health services. And for a minority, the complications can be fatal. Many thousands of lives have already been lost.
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