A University of the West Indies (UWI) professor has charged that recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, and warned that if humans do not change their habits and learn from experience “worse [things] will happen”.
“I am afraid it’s us, it’s human beings. It’s nobody else to blame but us. We know what we are doing to our environment — our deforestation, our forest encroachment, we are moving into habitats of animals, coming closer to animals. We are living in close association with animals, enabling these viruses to jump across,” professor of veterinary virology at the UWI St Augustine campus in Trinidad, Christopher Oura argued during a digital forum hosted by the UWI on Sunday.
The forum was staged to assess the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on health systems and address the issue of whether wildlife was a public health problem.
The novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 3.6 million people and killed over 250,000 globally, is believed to have originated in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where wildlife was being slaughtered and sold for consumption.
According to Professor Oura, zoonotic transmissions (where viruses move from animals to humans) have been made worse because of human beings.
“We have wild wet markets in so many countries around the world where in a very unsanitary, unsafe way we are butchering wildlife and eating it, which is enabling viruses to get across into us. And when viruses do get across, there is a really high-density human population, unplanned urbanisation and, of course, modern intensive agricultural practices where animals are in such proximity. We are able to move around the world so quickly, as we have seen with this COVID-19, where we are able to move and take the virus with us. So the virus is everywhere before we know it,” Professor Oura argued.
He said while wildlife have viruses, they were not the true culprits.
“Wildlife have their own viruses and we have many different types of wildlife and bats; we have many different types of bats. They all have their own viruses. We know other animals, other wildlife — chimpanzees have their own viruses, rodents have viruses – they actually have more viruses than bats do – and we have lots and lot of viruses that have, over the years, come through bats into humans,” Oura pointed out.
He said, for example, other viruses which went global, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), evolved in horseshoe bats, then came through civet cats and then came into humans, while the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which came through bats, went through camels and is still being transmitted to humans. Both viruses, he said, are cousins of the novel coronavirus and all lead back to human interference.
“This new COVID-19 virus also came from bats, and we are not sure whether it came through an intermediate host in maybe a wet market. We are not sure which host that is; we are not sure if the virus actually evolved inside the bats and came directly to humans. We need to work that out but what can we do about it? We need to stop these kinds of practices. We don’t learn from our mistakes,” Oura charged.
He said when the SARS1 outbreak occurred in 2003 wet markets in China were closed. “But then they opened them up two or three years later and here we are now again where we are carrying out extremely poor sanitary practices – we are eating bats, we are butchering and eating all sorts of wild animals, including chimpanzees and apes in Africa. So we are setting ourselves up so these viruses can jump very easily from wildlife into humans,” Professor Oura said.
“We can learn so much. We know now the cost of an outbreak and how much it is — billions of dollars when you’ve got humans seeking medical care and hospitalisation now. If you can catch the virus early when it’s causing limited problems in animals, you can stop it. So surveillance in animal populations is so important so we can stop these viruses before they start killing people and causing so much at a financial cost,” he added.
“Healthy animals, healthy environments, healthy people. We are all interconnected. Don’t blame the bats. Bats haven’t caused this pandemic – it is people. Bats carrying coronaviruses in the wild undisturbed by people are not a threat to human health. It’s human encroachment into wildlife habitats that’s causing the problem and, if nothing changes, we are going to see it again. We might see a worse situation,” Oura said.
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