What are the main causes of epidemics

Pandemics: environmental degradation falls back on humans

April 8th, 2020 - For the molecular biologist Pierre Meulien, Managing Director of the “Innovative Medicines Initiative” (IMI), the new type of coronavirus is all about the “signs of the times”. Be it SARS-CoV-2 or Ebola: The occurrence of such epidemics is "not unexpected" - but is related, among other things, to the fact that the "balance between man and nature [...] has been turned upside down". More and more experts point this out. Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze therefore sees the current pandemic as a “wake-up call” for more nature conservation. This is an "important key" to prevent infectious diseases from breaking out in the future.

Drug and vaccine research, increasing the number of intensive care beds, exit restrictions and "social distancing": The current issue is to do everything possible to save human lives. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn has nevertheless called for confidence: "There will be a time after Corona," he emphasized. He may be right about that - but the fact is also: There are many other pathogens from the animal world that have the potential to spread widely among humans. Even if nobody wants to hear that at the moment: after the pandemic could be before the pandemic.

"Viruses spread from animals to the human population every year," said Meulien, head of IMI - a public-private partnership between the European Union and the pharmaceutical industry. At first this is nothing unusual. But: "The closer we live to the animals and the more densely populated human residential areas are, the more of these 'jumps' we will see". The respective pathogen does not necessarily have to survive this "jump". But because viruses are constantly mutating and adapting to their environment, "it is only a matter of time before a certain, novel virus has the necessary equipment to infect humans," explains Meulien. It was the same with SARS-CoV-2, which probably originated in wild animals.

"Growing vulnerability to pandemics"

With this in mind, the science journalist Sonia Shah wrote an article for the oldest US weekly “The Nation”. The message: "You think exotic animals are to blame for the coronavirus? Think about it again. " According to her article, which was published in German by the taz, since 1940 "hundreds of pathogens have appeared or reappeared in regions where some of them have never been observed before." Examples? The HI virus. Or Ebola in West Africa.

The vast majority of these pathogens have their origin in domestic, farm animals and - above all - wild animals. It is important to Shah to emphasize that most microbes - such as bacteria, fungi or viruses - live in animals without harming them. So the “guilt” is not to be found in them, she says. Instead, our “increasing vulnerability to pandemics” has a deeper cause: “the ever faster destruction of habitats.” She explains: “With the ever more massive deforestation and growing urbanization, we have opened up ways for these microbes to reach the human body and adapt accordingly. ”In a UN report from 2019 the World Biodiversity Council (IPBES) drew an alarming picture: According to this, nature is disappearing from the earth's surface at an unprecedented speed; around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction. And for the "survivors" the space is getting smaller and smaller. “This increases the likelihood that they will come into close contact with people,” says Shah. Microbes that live in animals can get into "our bodies, where they can turn into deadly pathogens."

Loss of habitats, fresh markets, industrial meat production

As an example, Shah cites the Ebola virus, which originated in bats. "A study carried out in 2017 showed that outbreaks of the virus were more common in areas of central and west Africa where forests had recently been cleared on a large scale," she says. In other words: the animals were stolen from their homes, they avoided human settlements - where their microbes jumped over to humans and developed into pathogens that were dangerous to them.

Another source of disease outbreaks are places where animals are crowded together. Different species are offered side by side at fresh markets, "which would probably never have met in the great outdoors," says Shah. The "microbes can happily migrate from one to the other". It is similar with industrial meat production - it provides “ideal conditions for microbes to turn into deadly pathogens.” Shah explains: “For example, when avian flu viruses, whose host animals are wild waterfowl, enter poultry farms, they mutate and become much more dangerous than in the wild.

Pandemic prevention: environmental and species protection

For Tina Baier, science editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, it is therefore clear: Once the coronavirus crisis is over, "it should be an occasion to fundamentally rethink the way people deal with the environment and the animals and plants that live in it." demands: “Keep your distance! At the moment it is clearly the human being who does not comply with this rule and is forcing wild animals to be unhealthy. ”Shah sees politics as being largely responsible:“ We can [...] do a lot to reduce the risk of disease-causing microbes - for example protect the habitats of wild animals ”.

Germany also bears a great responsibility here: “Our lifestyle makes a significant contribution” to the destruction of ecosystems, said Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) recently. During a press conference she referred to the destruction of the rainforest that is accepted for the imported products soy and palm oil. In order to prevent the outbreak of infectious diseases, more must be done in terms of nature conservation, stressed the politician. For example, it is important to stop the illegal trade in wild animals.

Prepare for the next pandemic

"We have to prepare for more pandemics," says IMI boss Meulien. Public-private partnerships, such as those taking place in the form of the “Zoonosis Anticipation and Preparedness Initiative” (ZAPI) (Pharma Facts reported), are therefore important. Funded by IMI, it brings together the pharmaceutical industry, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and public research in order to jointly fight against zoonoses. Zoonoses are infectious diseases that are transmitted between humans and animals. "In 2019 the project showed that certain antibodies can prevent the MERS coronavirus from infecting new cells." Those responsible are now checking "whether these antibodies could also be effective against SARS-CoV-2".

"There is still a lot we do not know [about the novel coronavirus]". Meulien is aware of this. But the understanding of the scientific community about the causes, spread and consequences of the pathogen is growing day by day. And even if it is hard to imagine at the moment: at some point this crisis will have disappeared from the global headlines again. Then, above all, it should be a teaching. A lesson that says: "If the environment and its living beings are doing badly, people are not doing well either," says Tina Baier.