A Microbiomic Crisis

The Economy Critically Disrupts the Balance of Nature 

Black Lives Matter demonstrations all over the world crowded Covid-19 out of the news, swelling into a pandemic of demonstrations in small towns as well as big cities on six continents. Triggered by the death of George Floyd, many local protests called out police abuses of people of color in their regions. Most demonstrators felt so strongly that they violated Covid-19 separation rules, and the protests still have a lot of steam. Injustice – resentment – stirs more emotion than a disease. Indeed, reports noted that Covid-19 laid bare preexisting social injustices that let people of color and the Navaho Nation be hit harder than whites.

Until Covid-19 strikes close to home, statistics stir little emotional juice; you question whether restrictions are necessary. Despite data being collected and sorted out on the run, dry numbers are approximate indicators. Every day I check the Worldometer Covid-19 data base. You can too. What pops out is that oriental countries are coping with Covid-19 much better than Western ones, including the United States. Leading stars are: Viet Nam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

What’s the difference? When infection first appears, they shut down hard and stay shut until cases reduce so that contact tracing can confine infections to small pockets. Then they strictly monitor in-bound travelers to sequester new infections, but otherwise life and politics go on. For example, Hong Kong resumed protesting mainland China diminishing Hong Kong’s self-rule status, and even demonstrated for Black Lives Matter – while wearing masks, of course. Having experienced prior pandemics, they know the drill and realize that fast response now avoids extended pain later. Culturally, they appear more cognizant of future consequences.

Confidence in agencies’ predictive modeling is harder to come by in the US, where distrust of “experts” is widespread. Americans resent curtailing their freedoms and their businesses, but “expert” really means being positioned to learn faster and more deeply. Epidemiologists must learn on the run because each new virus springs surprises. SARS CoV-2 certainly has; that Covid-19 seriously affects organs besides lungs; that aftereffects on survivors can be serious; that variations are huge in the virulence of spreaders and in the susceptibility of those exposed; that the quality of indoor air affects its spread; and curiously, that smokers seem less likely to contract Covid-19 than non-smokers. New quirks of this virus spill out daily.

Americans became blasé because previous potential pandemics like SARS-1, MERS, Swine Flu, and Ebola, were cut short before affecting the US, so people suspected epidemiologists of “crying wolf.” It did not help that media portrayed epidemiologists as having more answers than they did. Having studied epidemics, epidemiologists are mere humans with more insight than the rest of us, but scrambling to learn the latest curves that nature is throwing at us. Science is a learning process, not a reservoir of finger-snap magic, waiting to go on stage.

Right now, predicting the future course of Covid-19 is dicey, but scientists fear that no magic is forthcoming. For instance, they are just now learning how viruses hijack human protein production in human cells to make novel proteins. No vaccine is likely to be totally protective, certainly not if many people refuse to take it. If not, Covid-19 will not go away, but become endemic like flu, something that we have to live with, but its outcomes may be more adverse than the flu.

Biodiversity and Viral Mutations

Could we have more pandemics? Absolutely. At any time. Opportunities for them increase as biodiversity decreases. Denser animal and human populations create more favorable conditions too. But why?

About three-fourths of emerging infectious diseases in humans are known to have jumped from animals. (Coronaviruses are primarily found in bats.) SARS CoV-2 escaping from a lab or being deliberately synthesized is possible but unlikely. Pathogens jumping from animals to humans are common enough to be an occupational hazard for veterinarians.

Mixing diverse animals from everywhere also mixes strange microbiomes living in each of them. This greater variety increases chances for a mutation to spark a new epizootic among animals. Sometimes a spark jumps to humans. SARS-1. MERS, Swine Flu – all jumped from animals. Cramming many exotic animals together into a “wet market” sets up a prime environment for breeding mutations. And why wet markets? To be sure that meat is fresh, many customers prefer to buy live animals, especially fowl, and slaughter them personally. That carries minimum risk in small local markets exchanging a few species, but in big urban markets, jam packed with animals from everywhere, and people from everywhere, risks are no longer negligible – another unintended consequence of globalization.

Big barns feeding the same animal are also breeding grounds for new epizootics, and a possible jump to humans. Certainly, crowded conditions invite pathogens to spread quickly. When mass feeding thousands of confined animals, growers’ potential loss from disease is so high that they add prophylactic doses of antibiotics to the feed. However, that sets up another problem: antibiotics being detectable “everywhere.” Antibiotics in the meat that humans eat disperse widely, especially down sewage systems. Violating nature’s ways of doing things plays Whack-A-Mole with nature. Fixing one problem typically makes another pop up.

What’s the best way to stop a pandemic? Before it jumps to humans. An Australian initiative is designed to do that. It’s similar to a previous global PREDICT program. Skilled veterinarians and virologists have begun to train viral transfer scouts in several southeast Asian nations. If animals or human caretakers appear strangely ill, sound the alarm. If an outbreak can be quarantined at this stage, a novel virus is likely to be confined to a small pocket, never making the news, which leads to the question whether, if this program is highly successful, it will continue to be funded; lawmakers would assert that “these people don’t seem to be finding anything.”

Preventive measures depend on human values and beliefs, not just predictive experience, data, and models. Some of us must personally experience danger before accepting that it exists, and if in extreme denial, maybe not even then. A cloud of uncertainty always hovers over predictions of the future, clouding the actions we take. Do we prepare for the worst, or go for the best – or what we think is the best?  Can we learn to question the deep beliefs that frame our preparation for an uncertain future? (This wades into deeper water than this post has space for – to be continued.)

But the best defense against pandemics is to not let them spark; to not even light off a small pocket to be quarantined. Instead, minimize opportunities for mutations to spark epizootics in animals or pandemics in humans. That leads us back to biodiversity.

Biodiversity and Diseases

The connection between biodiversity and disease is “common sense” for naturalists who study these things, but mysterious for those of us who rarely observe nature, and then not closely. Two examples illustrate the connection.

One is Lyme Disease. Humans are infected by bites from ticks that have previously feasted on white footed mice, eastern chipmunks, and short-tailed shrews. Each of these animals is abundant in degraded, fragmented forests, and they are hardier reservoirs of the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease than deer, which the ticks also suck up to. A person bitten by a tick living in a fragmented forest is much more likely to contract Lyme Disease than if bitten by a tick from a larger, undisturbed forest. Why? Because a large old forest gives the ticks many more choices of animals to land on, and many fewer landings will be on a major reservoir of the bacterium. Lyme Disease was first diagnosed and treated in 1975.

Another is West Nile Virus. It shares a similar story, but the pathogen is a flavivirus, a killer of birds and other animals as well as humans. Again, the birds most susceptible to the West Nile flavivirus are resilient ones that hang in after an old natural habitat is disturbed for a suburb or whatever. The disease has been suspected for 1000 years, but became widespread in the last 30 years. It was first diagnosed in the United States in 1999. The biodiversity theme is the same; West Nile Virus was rare until breaking up wild tracts become common, but has never elevated to a pandemic.

That both epizootics and human epidemics increase as biodiversity decreases has been hypothesized for decades. This connection is now well established, but not common public knowledge. The pattern for each emerging disease is similar to Lyme Disease and West Nile. Google and you will find multiple predictions of pandemics like Ebola and Covid-19 long before they actually occurred.

Illustrating the change is the story of Mayibout 2, a village of 150 or so people in upper Gabon, Africa. In 1996, 21 out of 37 villagers infected with the emerging Ebola virus died. Ebola has a death rate of 50%, much higher than that of Covid-19. This village is near an old forest, but all around is depredation from logging and other activities. Villagers had long lived with minor outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria, shrugging them off as a hazard of living. But Ebola was a new virus. No one had immunity, and Ebola’s death toll made the villagers fear going into a forest that they once loved. It was home; it part of them; they part of it. Now they are estranged from it.

Nearly all of us are now much more estranged from nature than the Gabon villagers, so estranged for so long that we think it is normal. Our detachment is increasingly at our own peril. We can run from nature, but we can’t hide. But we keep trying.

Biodiversity is a tangle of complex feedbacks that keep life in balance. This complexity includes microbiomes that we can’t see, so complex and ever changing that we can never know exactly how it works, but biodiversity is essential to life, including ours. We know that honeybees are vital, but may not realize that there are “gazillions” of other pollinators, many unknown.

Biodiversity is the essence of life, nature’s control system that keeps all life in balance at the micro level as well as macro. We can identify – sort of – with predator-prey cycles of big species that we can see. What we don’t see are regenerative species like mushrooms, in reserve to burst out and start reconstituting life after a major disruption, whether from natural causes like volcanos, or from man-made ones like mining.

We are going to need those reconstructive species. All life will need them. Assuming that climate change is a runaway, all life will have to adapt, somehow, someway. For us to adapt, all our supporting life has to adapt. The hidden recuperative powers of global microbiomes must emerge in full force. The total mass of protozoa, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms exceeds that of all macro-life, but their crucial function is information and communication. This system is constantly mixing and rewriting the genetic codes at the base of all life. Messing up this system is perilous. But we’re doing it.

Covid-19 isn’t prompting us to learn about this. Instead, some environmental news stresses the unfairness of Covid-19 illness and conditions leading to it – environmental justice. Most fatalities have been of people with compromised immunity, or preexisting conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart conditions, cancer, exposure to pollution, or just plain age. People of color have more preexisting conditions because of where they live, the work they do, and the diet they consume. For example, a current protest is in “Cancer Alley” Louisiana, where Tulane researchers recently mapped a correlation between Covid-19 deaths and air pollution in a population that is predominantly black. High risk of cancer was already known. Protestors want to stop Formosa Plastics from building yet another polluting monster in an area already rife with them. Is this a clash between health and economic development? Or think a little bigger; it’s also a clash between economic development and preserving biodiversity – and its benefits.

The human species seems predisposed to argue human conflicts; who’s winning; who’s losing. An extreme example is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, suggesting that disease and dispute feed each other. In the midst of resource grabs and civil wars, the DRC has endemic measles and malaria, and now, outbreaks of both Covid-19 and Ebola. And you thought you had it bad.

Meanwhile back in the United States, we argue about the economic cost of dealing with Covid-19. What’s obvious is that our current economic system is not at all robust against disruptions like pandemics. The changes needed are huge. That’s another story, but perhaps what needs fixing first is less our economic system or the environment than us. It’s our belief that we and our systems are independent of all life. We need new beliefs integrating health and wealth from which to evolve new systems.

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