Friend or Foe

Man has always interacted with animals, whether that be for hunting or for farming and domestication purposes.  We tend to think of this interaction as a one-way street in which man gains all the benefits with little to no risks.  The recent COVID-19 pandemic may have destroyed that idea because it is believed to have originated from an animal source at a Chinese market.  Zoonoses are diseases that pass from animals to humans and such instances are not uncommon.  Although they don’t receive a great deal of attention in the media, zoonoses account for as much as 75% of emerging infectious diseases according to the National Institutes of Health.  Zoonoses may be bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic and can be transmitted by any number of methods.  Infection may take place from an animal or insect bite, touching or handling a sick animal and consuming contaminated meat, water or by drinking milk that has not been pasteurized. The types of pathogens that can be transmitted by animals to humans include bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses.  Most authorities feel the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic is such a zoonotic virus.  It apparently made the leap from animals to humans at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, around the end of 2019.  Since it is new “type” of coronavirus to humans we had no immunity to it prior to this outbreak.  It is a  generally accepted premise that bats are the reservoir for SARS-CoV-2.  For the virus to jump from bats to humans however required an intermediate host.  Researchers feel that the pangolin is that intermediate host.  This conclusion came about after finding a 91% correlation between the viral DNA in pangolin tissue and viral DNA in humans.  The pangolin is a scaly anteater that is now on the endangered species list due to poaching and heavy trafficking.  The Chinese value the animal for its meat and outer scales that are used for medicinal purposes.

Researchers have estimated that there are over half a million yet to be discovered viruses that have the ability to jump from animals to humans.  Deforestation and consumption of “bushmeat” will only increase the likelihood of future zoonotic pandemics.  Scientists are studying species with high viral loads, such as bats, rats and monkeys, particularly where man is encroaching on wildlife ecosystems. Testing looks for newly discovered viruses that could infect human cells.  The previous coronavirus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome SARS-CoV, was recognized as a potential recurring threat.  Although SARS first surfaced in China in 2002 researchers from the University of Hong Kong later discovered the presence of many SARS-CoV-like viruses.  This suggested that it was only a matter of time before the appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus would appear in humans.  Markets where wildlife is cut up and sold as food should be banned.  In the modern world of travel any novel disease will not remain localized for long.  This could just as easily been a biological weapon released on an unprepared U.S. and/or our allies.  We should be better prepared both on a national and local level.  Local leaders know best what resources are needed in their communities and should work on securing them.  On the national level key departments of the government and defense must be able to mobilize backup resources and get them to where the needs are most critical.  A crisis is no time for politics or pettiness.  I don’t think it will be another 100 years before we are faced with a similar (or greater) crisis.  As I am fond of saying, “if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.”

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