HEALTH: WHY NEW VIRUSES CONTINUE TO SPREAD

Updated April 05, 2020

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A quarantine researcher checks a chicken at a poultry farm in Hubei province after avian influenza spread in China’s farms in 2017 | Reuters
A quarantine researcher checks a chicken at a poultry farm in Hubei province after avian influenza spread in China’s farms in 2017 | Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic has, by the time of this writing, reached the shores of all continents but Antarctica, and the number of infections is likely to grow exponentially in the coming days.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen some of the world’s most developed economies failing to combat the spread of the virus. The New York Times estimates that the number of infected people in the US could exceed 160 million over the course of the epidemic. The contagion is predicted to hit countries with weaker health systems even more strongly, with Pakistan predicted to have over 70,000 infected people by the middle of April if the government doesn’t undertake a coordinated intervention.

Clearly, the world is not past the peak yet.

One would expect, in such dreadful times, that the governments around the world would take coordinated and drastic measures to combat the spread of the virus. But the response from the ruling elite, barring a few world leaders, has been chilling. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the virus could infect 60 to 70 percent of the German population and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who himself tested positive last week, declared that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” US President Donald Trump has advised infected Americans to continue going to work, ‘affirming’ that the virus will disappear like a miracle.

More callous has been the response of Johnson’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, insisting that neither is it possible nor desirable to stop everyone getting the virus. The Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner brought to fore the underlying sadism of the likes of Vallance when he wrote, “the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”

What’s even more worrying ­— amidst these chaotic, irrational and callous responses from the ruling elite — is the suppression of imagination seeking to unearth the root cause of viral diseases. The mainstream media aggravates the situation further. Instead of critically evaluating the operations of industrial farming, which creates conditions for the emergence of pathogens in the first place, the focus is always on a particular outbreak (in this case Covid-19), the source of the virus and its virulence. This is not to trivialise media-driven awareness campaigns or to suggest that research and development aimed at finding the source and determining the virulence of a particular viral disease should be curtailed, but rather, that singling out an epidemic and treating it as an isolated incident may blind us to the structural reasons bringing about these outbreaks. Pinging from virus to virus, without identifying their common thread, will not let us understand the woven whole.

Bat meat is sold at a stall in a wet market in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, 2017 | AFP
Bat meat is sold at a stall in a wet market in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, 2017 | AFP

The common thread, by virtue of causing emergence of the most dangerous viral diseases of the 21st century, is the agribusiness — the big corporations that dominate global farming. There is enough evidence that the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, that killed over 5,75,000 people worldwide, originated from factory farms in North Carolina, a state that hosts the densest pig population in North America. Likewise, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — a pathogen from the class of coronavirus that killed 780 people in Saudi Arabia alone in 2012 — has been traced to dromedary camels bred in the industrialising camel sector of the Middle East. A similar relationship has been found between corporate chicken farming and the emergence of bird flu, as unveiled by Mike Davis in his 2005 book The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.

Industrial farms and the destruction of natural forests is a common factor in the outbreak of most recent virus epidemics. Why then is there no focus on the reasons we are continuously faced with the emergence and transmission of new pathogens?

The problem, fundamentally, lies in the nature and scale of industrial farming operations. Thousands of genetically identical poultry or hogs are stacked together in mega-confinements before being slaughtered, processed and transported around the world. Because these animals are not genetically diverse, they offer no immune firebreak to slow transmission when they become infected, argues Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist, in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu. Moreover, because such animals live in contained animal feeding operations, they’re highly likely to suffer from immune depression.

Africa has seen 20 outbreaks of the life-threatening Ebola virus which originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo possibly from bats in the 1970s | Reuters
Africa has seen 20 outbreaks of the life-threatening Ebola virus which originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo possibly from bats in the 1970s | Reuters

Pathogens, thus, have the suitable conditions necessary to race through the herd and eventually mutate to transmit to humans in close contact. Couple these conditions with virus-laden fluids of animals, minimal ventilation and sunlight, which typically characterises factory farms, and you have perfect incubators for pathogens to grow.

Take the example of the US swine industry that has transformed from small family farms to large industrial operations over the last six decades. Marked by regular influxes of young swine and increased worker-animal interaction, these industrial confinement operations are the perfect petri dishes for not just animal-animal and animal-human transmission of strains but also for the generation of new hybrid strains.

As Wallace writes in his book: “Today’s large herds are maintained through the frequent introduction of young swine into swine-producing facilities. This constant influx of potentially pathogen-susceptible animals makes swine pathogen eradication difficult to achieve … [T]hese influenza virus infections among pigs provide a constant opportunity for zoonotic influenza virus infections among humans who are occupationally exposed. Continual swine influenza transmission in US swine herds also provides the opportunity for human influenza viruses to mix with swine or avian influenza viruses and generate novel progeny viruses.”

Beside facilitating the development and transmission of dangerous variants of viruses in under cramped and unsanitary conditions at factory farms, agribusiness has been at the forefront of generating new viral diseases. Ebola is the most recent and alarming example here.

Saudi Arabia was the focal point of the MERS outbreak which traced back to dromedary camels bred in the industrialising camel sector of the Middle East | Reuters
Saudi Arabia was the focal point of the MERS outbreak which traced back to dromedary camels bred in the industrialising camel sector of the Middle East | Reuters

A life-threatening infectious disease, Ebola first originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s, possibly from bats, as the anthropologist Paul Richards traces in his book Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic. Since then, Africa has seen 20 Ebola outbreaks, each generally increasing in lethality. The 2013-2015 outbreak was the deadliest, killing over 11,000 people across the region.

Interestingly, the transmissibility of the virus has not increased over the years. Instead, the neoliberal shifts in land use brought more people in contact with the pathogen and made the Guinea Forest Region the epicentre of the epidemic. The 2013-2015 outbreak coincides with the large-scale clearance of rainforests for the production of palm oil. Clearing these forests forces bats to roost in new settlements and palm oil farms, and come into ever-greater contact with humans, increasing the likelihood of disease.

As Wallace argues in his book: “Commoditizing the forest may have lowered the region’s ecosystemic threshold to such a point that no emergency intervention can drive the Ebola outbreak low enough to burn out. Novel spillovers suddenly express larger forces of infection. On the other end of the epicurve, a mature outbreak continues to circulate, with the potential to intermittently rebound.”

Wallace’s thesis is also supported by a 2017 study, concluding that “the increased probability of an EVD [Ebola] outbreak occurring in a site is linked to recent deforestation events, and that preventing the loss of forests could reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks.”

Aggravatingly, multinational agriculture corporations have already secured leases for thousands of hectares of land surrounding the forest, according to Wallace. The outbreaks and their resulting carnage has not kept the global capital from flowing in, making other outbreaks more likely.

Ultimately, agribusinesses never take responsibility for their role in the emergence and transmission of viral diseases. Instead, the blame is conveniently shifted to the small farms (also known as smallholders), “a standard agribusiness crisis management practice.” In other instances, the blame is shifted on to farm workers.

When swine flu occurred in the US in 2009, for instance, National Pork Producers blamed workers and visitors for transmitting flu to the pigs, despite the fact that the evidence suggested the opposite, according to Wallace.

Yet in other instances, “othered” cultures serve as scapegoats. Media accounts of Covid-19 are overwhelmingly focused on Chinese food choices, giving the mistaken impression that the problem lies in “uncivilised” culinary habits. A New York Times article, for instance, consciously portrays China’s omnivorous markets as detestable, listing an assortment of wild animals that are not in line with Western food aesthetics, including, “Live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.”

While racialising pandemics does not help evade the onslaught of pathogens, something does need to be done about exotic wildlife markets where Covid-19 possibly emerged. Unlike a few decades ago, such markets are no longer small farmers’ markets and are increasingly becoming more and more integrated and formalised, making critics of agribusiness increasingly wary.

Valued at 74 billion dollars, China’s wildlife-farming industry — besides contributing to the extinction of wild species across the planet — increasingly caters to the affluent, as having a pangolin worth 300 dollars a pound on a supper table is considered a delicacy to some. Wildlife farm owners and other stakeholders of the industry urge the government to support their business endeavours under the pretext of economic development. The difference between industrial farms and exotic markets, therefore, becomes less significant in terms of the latter’s vertical integration into the system of food production.

Moreover, as industrial farming complexes continue to grow across the world, smallholders are forced to go deeper into wilder hinterlands, and eventually, forests are cleared, further exacerbating the problem. The systematic push exerted by the factory farms, therefore, significantly increases the chances of smallholder food animals (or smallholders themselves) catching a pathogen. The infected animals then end up at a processing unit owned by a corporate farming complex, or directly at a shop in an exotic market, depending on the smallholder’s position in this vertical hierarchy.

The important question, therefore, remains: Why is there absolutely no development toward bringing about the structural changes necessary to protect natural immune system firebreaks and end the dangerous practices creating sites for host concentration and viral spread? This is precisely because advances toward such structural changes mean bringing down the agribusiness empire — into which exotic markets are quickly being integrated.

As long as neoliberalism sustains such super-incubators, pathogens like Covid-19 will keep finding the perfect conditions to travel and mutate their genes and likely reappear with greater virulence.

To paraphrase Wallace, the bug has left the barn already.

Bilal Zahoor is the editorial director of Folio Books, a Lahore-based independent publishing house, and co-editor of Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective Email: bilalzahoor71@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 5th, 2020