6th Aug 2020

COVID-19 FAQ:  How do we stop viruses infecting us from animals?

6th Aug 2020

Curated by Dr Ilan Kelman

The coronavirus causing the current pandemic appears to have jumped into human beings from animals. How could we stop this from this happening? It depends on how we treat the environment and the habitats of wild animals.

Disturbing the environments is a factor behind zoonotic infections

In two previous coronavirus outbreaks, SARS in 2002-2004 and MERS in 2012, evidence suggests that bats acted as a reservoir for both viruses, which then infected humans via civets and camels respectively (as well as possibly alpacas). Ongoing research into the current coronavirus converges on bats as the likely origin with pangolins, another mammal, a likely intermediary into humans. Each virus appears to have infected people through the food chain, namely by eating the animals or through camel milk, although direct infection from bats could be possible. One study summarised the uncertainties regarding whether the current coronavirus’ adaptation to human hosts occurred after it infected people or while it was still in its animal host.

Should we blame bats? A research overview describes how killing bats or destroying their habitats will not stop virus transmission and could exacerbate it by stressing the bats so that they release more viruses. At the same time the animals are forced to move to new locations carrying the pathogens with them. The background to animal-to-human viral infections is thus our wider interactions with and influences on ecosystems. For example, a recent estimate showed that 10% of the world’s wilderness areas were destroyed by human activity between the early 1990s and 2015. This scale of ecosystem devastation is implicated in increased chances of microbes jumping to humans. This is due to more human-animal contact, illegal or inadvertent transport of animals (such as bringing pangolins into China), and rapid land use changes (including an expected 60% increase in worldwide road length from 2010-2050 and changing forests into crops). All of this means that a COVID-19-type pandemic was inevitable due to our actions. Totally eliminating human-animal contact and wider environmental change is impossible, but we can be much more careful to help stop new viruses from emerging.

Here is a the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard.

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Curated by

Dr Ilan Kelman

Professor of Disasters and Health at the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences at University College London

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