This is a link to a long article on the Ensia website by John Vidal, its environment editor.  It’s not about COVID-19 specifically, but about the increasing risks of pathogens crossing species boundaries to humans.  Here are a few extracts to give a sense of what the article covers:

“Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place.  The 150 or so people who live in the village, which sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe forest in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness.  Mostly they shrug them off.  But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics.  The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest.

… a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike.  In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases like Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are now able to spread quickly to new places.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of “new or emerging” diseases that infect humans originate in nonhuman animals.  Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago.  Others, like Marburg, which is thought to be transmitted by bats, are still rare. A few, like COVID-19, which emerged last year in Wuhan, China, and MERS, which is linked to camels in the Middle East, are new to humans and spreading globally.

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, calls emerging animal-borne infectious diseases an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.”  In 2008, Jones and a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from non-human animals.  Increasingly, says Jones, these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behavior.  The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, she says.  The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she says, is now “a hidden cost of human economic development.  There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,” says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behavior add to the risks of diseases spilling over from animals to humans.  “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”  Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between virus host animals — in which the virus is naturally circulating — and themselves.  “We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic,” Gillespie says.

Jones says that change must come from both rich and poor societies.  Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the Global North leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease, she says. “We must think about global biosecurity, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise we can expect more of the same,” she says.  “The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed,” says Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute, where he leads Ebola-related surveillance activities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.  “We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” Bird says. “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses.  It needs investments, change in human behavior, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”


This is not an easy read, and the pictures are not the sort of images of animals we are normally fed.  The issues, however, would seem to be of profound importance.

Ensia is “a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.  We all know these are pivotal times. Global climate change, biodiversity loss, water woes, off-kilter ecosystems … the problems are rife.  The good news?  Solutions also abound.  Citizens, scientists, business and non-profit leaders, policy-makers and others collectively have knowledge and insights that can change the world. What’s missing are the stories and the connections.  This is where Ensia comes in. …”

Ensia is powered by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News — a nationwide network of nonprofit newsrooms serving the public good — and the Solutions Journalism Network.