By Ricardo Evangelista
We tend to think of ourselves, and perhaps understandably so, as the most successful species on the planet, the pinnacle of evolution determined by natural selection. Emboldened by this belief we have multiplied and the impact caused by the 7.5 billion humans alive today is noticeable everywhere, even visible from space. Countless species, both animal and vegetable, became extinct because of our ever-greater needs; forests were cut-down, lakes drained, mountains flattened. Enabled by large brains and the dexterity of our thumbs, there seems to be nothing beyond the reach of human ingenuity.
Since agriculture was introduced, the homo sapien population grew from an estimated one million to today’s colossal numbers, but, despite the spectacular rise of our species over the last 10,000 years, we aren’t as invulnerable as our collective arrogance sometimes leads us to believe.
The coronavirus should be a reminder to us all, that nature is still able to catch us off-guard.
As human population grows so does the risk of us meeting new illnesses caused by yet unknown microorganisms. The coronavirus is believed to have originated at a wet market, where large crowds of humans intermingled in close proximity with hunted wild animals, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It was there that the pathogen, endemic within the local bat population, was passed by an intermediate host, probably one of the animals sold at the market, to the first human carrier.
What happened in Wuhan is not a new phenomenon, in fact it has always occurred, but the more our population grows the more likely viruses-linked pandemics become. If we look back over the last 100 years or so, we will find several examples of lethal new pathogens. The 1918 flu, also known as the Spanish flu, resulted from a H1N1 virus that is believed to have originated in birds. This pandemic was the deadliest in history, spreading to all continents and claiming a total number of fatalities in excess of 50 million.
More recently, new viruses became seriously threatening. Some caused pandemics, like AIDS which is estimated to have been responsible for 32 million fatalities. Others, despite triggering very serious outbreaks, were stopped in time, as was the case of Ebola, Marburg and a previous coronavirus, which caused SARS. It is thought that viruses are the most common life form on the planet; wherever you find yourself, there will be billions of microbes in the vicinity. So, if we cannot escape them, we must learn to live with them.
Sustainable farming and good animal husbandry need to be closer to the top of politicians’ agendas, while the hunting of wild animals that end up in crowded wet markets must be discouraged. Nature clearly has its own ways to re-establish lost balances and not paying attention can come at very high costs, both in human and economic terms.
It is essential that we start tackling at source the risks posed by viruses, by minimising the chances of interspecies jumps occurring.
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