The Coronavirus may only be the beginning
2,406,575 infections. 165,031 deaths. And COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, is continuing to grow at an exponential rate, with no end in sight (1). Around the world, cities, states, provinces, and countries all are undergoing their respective quarantines, causing their citizens to suffer from a shortage of supplies, including face masks and toilet paper. As we continue to adapt to this terrifying new reality, we must not forget that the global risk of pandemics is only increasing because of climate change. The coronavirus may only be the beginning.
As the rate of climate change continues to increase drastically, habitat loss has become a strikingly pressing issue and may cause viruses embedded in particular habitats to become exposed and come into contact with humans. Many of these viruses are completely unique from previous viruses and thus not quickly curable. For example, in 2015, researchers from China and the United States discovered 28 new virus groups in a melting glacier in Tibet. Though these viruses were found deep within the glacier, they may quickly become an immediate concern because glaciers and ice caps around the world are melting at alarming rates. Humans do not even need to directly come into contact with the glacier to catch these viruses, as meltwater can easily transport the contagion through rivers and oceans. Once this happens, viruses can infect any of the billions of people relying on vital resources from the bodies of water. In addition, over the past several years, researchers have collected traces of many extremely harmful viruses, including smallpox, Spanish flu, bubonic plague, and anthrax from thawing permafrost, a frozen layer of earth found at high latitudes (4).
Increased contact between humans and disease-carrying species is also on the rise due to the expansion of several industries, including wild meat, concentrated animal feeding operations, and timber. This already has had harmful effects: increased contact between human employees in the wild meat industry and animals living in animal disease reservoirs, specific ecological zones in which a pathogen naturally reproduces and spreads, facilitated the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2004 (2). In addition, concentrated animal feeding operations may lead not only to an increase in pandemics, but also an increase in their lethality. Having animals in such a tightly packed space can actually lead to the creation of new, extremely difficult to kill, virus strains. Deforestation can also expose humans to various disease-carrying animal communities. For example, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa during February of 2014 originated from a deforestation effort that was made in order to create space for agriculture. The Ebola-carrying bats living in the forest lost their habitats and had to find a new living environment, unfortunately transmitting the virus to humans along the way (3).
Though the combination of these factors paints a grim picture for the future, the risk is manageable—only if the scientific community takes appropriate measures. With the support of governments, they must collect, catalog, and identify all of the possible new viruses emerging to develop sound treatments and vaccines. However, in light of recent events, the likelihood of cooperation between governments and the scientific community seems low. Both the American and Chinese governments have routinely ignored recommendations regarding COVID-19 from scientists. If this trend continues, the world will pay a substantial price.
– Jack Qiu
- Coronavirus Worldwide Graphs. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/worldwide-graphs/
- Galvani, A. P. (2004, July). Emerging infections: what have we learned from SARS? Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323335/
- Thiele, R. (2020, March 24). How Climate Change Increases Our Risk For Pandemics. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/how-climate-change-increases-our-risk-for-pandemics
- Leman, J. (2020, Jan 23). Welp, Scientists Found 28 New Virus Groups in a Melting Glacier. Retrieved April 11, 2020, from https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a30643717/viruses-found-melting-glacier/