Where Will The Next Pandemic Come From?
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Conventional wisdom traces the source of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 to Wuhan, China. It’s believed to have come from a wet market in Wuhan where a variety of animals both dead and alive are bought and eventually eaten.
One of those animals was believed to have been a bat. Bats have been known to transmit numerous diseases but usually as a result of a bite rather than being consumed.
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It’s Called a Zoonotic Disease
A zoonotic disease is any bacterium or virus that develops and evolves in animals and makes the leap to humans. There are many past examples. Some may sound familiar.
- The 1918 Spanish flu, which infected over a quarter of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, was caused by an H1N1 virus that historians say likely originated in a Kansas chicken farm.
- An H1N1 strain that reached pandemic levels in the United States and Mexico in 2009 likely had its origins in the pig populations of both countries.
- Ebola and HIV, which transferred to humans from primates like chimpanzees and gorillas, were discovered in regions of sub-Saharan Africa where communities were near primate populations.
But it’s not about eating an infected animal (although the raw, uncooked meat of an infected animal is a possibility, such as Mad Cow Disease). According to Dr. Homayoon Farzadegan, a professor who teaches epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University:
Just living in close proximity with animals that are the potential reservoir of zoonotic viruses may lead to new transmissions.”
All of which gets to the fundamental issue. This isn’t about a town called Wuhan or a farm in Kansas. It’s about the specific source or vector that carries and delivers the virus.
In the case of animals, the vector gets the zoonotic designation from the specific animal, whether it be chickens, pigs, or in the case of Mad Cow Disease, cattle. But there are other vectors that could also lead to an outbreak.
How Zoonotic Viruses Spread
When an animal population is infected with a virus, the virus mutates over time. It’s this mutation that leads a virus to evolve into a form that can be transferred from an animal to humans, usually in the form of airborne droplets that are inhaled. Once a virus has crossed to another species, other members of that species become the carriers of the disease and the entire species is at risk.
On many occasions, various birds or other animal species have developed rampant viral infections resulting in the slaughter of thousands if not millions of chickens, pigs, ducks, and other animals to forestall the potential mutation of the virus. This has been largely the result of high-density animal farming practices.
Asteroids, Comets, and Meteorites
This sounds like something out of science-fiction but if you ponder the way we’re living now with COVID-19, what would have sounded like fiction is a living fact. And unfortunately, there are facts to support the idea of a virus or bacterium finding its way to us from space.
The Alarming Resilience of Microbes
Microbial bacteria have been found in some of the most extreme places on Earth. In 1983, three miles deep in the Marianas trench in the South Pacific Ocean, a team of oceanographers discovered volcanic hydrothermal vents spewing superheated steam and gases into the ocean.
The water pressure was crushing and the temperatures in the vents could melt steel, and did. The metal temperature probe from a deep-water sub actually melted when inserted into one of the vents.
What surprised the team of explorers more than anything was the prolific life surrounding the vents. Tube worms, blind and eyeless crabs, and shrimp—an oasis of life in a deep, dark, and treacherous abyss.
And what was at the foundation of this amazing deep-sea food-chain? Bacteria that thrived in the blazing volcanic vents under the immense pressure of 3 miles of ocean.
The point became clear. If a microbe could survive under those conditions in the deep ocean, they could potentially survive in space. The theory that emerged was that life on Earth may not have originated on Earth, but was actually delivered by an icy comet after hitching a ride to Earth.
The only way to prove the theory is to retrieve a meteorite either bearing fossils of a life form or the life form itself. But wait! Something just showed up. Living bacteria from space was found on the outside of the International Space Station.
Complicating matters further, bacteria have been found to thrive better in space than on Earth.
But Can it Happen?
Many stories have been written about the concept of a space-born bacterium or virus. The Andromeda Strain was one, but there are others. The unsettling fact is that if something can theoretically happen, there’s a statistical probability that it could.
Here again, it sounds implausible, but if someone told you last year that there actually would be days in 2020 where the Earth stood still, would you have believed it?
Plants as a Source of Zoonotic disease
Human infection from plants is very rare, but it does happen. The primary pathogen of concern is a bacterium known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes a type of soft rot in plants.
Aeruginosa infections in humans can invade nearly any tissue in the human body, provided they are already weakened. Symptoms vary widely, from urinary tract infections to dermatitis, gastrointestinal infections and even systemic illness. To make matters worse, this bacterium is becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant in institutional settings.
How Would Plant Bacteria Spread?
In this instance, eating a contaminated plant could lead to infection. Considering that we eat so many plants, the risk would be significant. We’ve already endured e coil, salmonella, and listeria. Fortunately, they are quickly identified when outbreaks occurred, and antibiotics can effectively treat most cases.
Insects as a Vector for Zoonotic Disease
We’ve lived with insects as vectors of disease since the human species emerged. Mosquitoes as carriers of Malaria and West Nile Virus, ticks as vectors for Lyme disease, and the fleas of the Black Plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. To a large degree, insects may be the most dangerous threat as vectors for any disease.
Fortunately, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted by insects. The COVID-19 virus is too delicate to survive in the intestinal tract of insects that thrive on blood derived from biting animals and humans.
That doesn’t mean that all viruses don’t have the resilience to survive in insects. West Nile Virus is a classic example. And if the past is any precedent, it’s statistically probable that a new form of the disease will find insects as a vector for new disease transmission that could quickly lead to a pandemic.
Fungus as a Source of a Zoonotic Disease
Fungus and molds literally blanket the Earth. Many of them are beneficial. Penicillin is actually derived from a mold. But many more are deadly. Mushrooms are in the fungus family and 96% of the 10,000 mushrooms in North America are toxic. 4% are deadly.
Black mold in basements has caused serious medical problems for many people and some have died from respiratory failure as a result of inhaling the spores. Can a fungus or mold reach pandemic proportions? Probably not…unless:
Believe it or Not. There is a “Zombie” Fungus
It’s called the Cordyceps fungus and it affects insects—predominantly ants. The spores spread over the exoskeleton of ants and invade their bodies. The ants begin to behave erratically and eventually, a cyst emerges from the ant’s body containing a packet of spores that burst to release more spores, infecting other ants.
The good news is that this fungus continues to be isolated to invertebrate insects and has not crossed over to vertebrate animals as a zoonotic disease. But there’s a problem.
Around the world, frogs have been mysteriously dying en masse. Recently, the cause was identified. The cause is a form of fungus and while it’s not cordyceps, the potential for a fungus to cross mutate or hybridize with another fungus should give us pause.
And by the way, both humans and frogs are vertebrate animals like chickens, pigs, ducks….
When the Permafrost Melts
In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalized after being infected by anthrax.
The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost. There it stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the permafrost thawed.
This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases.
The Return of the Zombie Virus
One consequence of climate change that most people don’t consider is the release of zombie pathogens. (I know a lot of you are skeptical about climate change, but it is a proven fact that the planet is warming. If you want to debate whether humans are responsible or whether it’s just part of a natural warming period, that’s fine, but it’s definitely getting hotter.)
So what is a zombie pathogen? It’s a bacteria or virus—preserved for centuries in frozen ground—coming back to life as the Arctic’s permafrost start to thaw. As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 25 feet deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.
Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.
According to evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France,
Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
Claverie put it into perspective,
The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is wrong and gives us a false sense of security.”
The Antarctic Incident
The lake was 4 kilometers deep beneath the Antarctic ice-shelf and was named Lake Vostok by the Russian scientists. It’s reported that the drill site to Lake Vostok has been capped and abruptly abandoned. No further word has been mentioned about the discovery. What did they really find?
So, How Might the Next Pandemic Playout?
The simple truth is that the planet we inhabit is a petri dish for all forms of life. What makes Earth so habitable for such a wide variety of species are all the factors that favor the continuation of life. Unfortunately, this includes all forms of bacteria and virus.
If the recent past is any guide, the development of a vaccine will do the most to shut down COVID-19. That’s still predicted to be 18 months away or well into 2021. The bigger question is whether or not COVID-19 mutates and continues as a seasonal disease the way the flu comes back year after year.
As for other viruses that might emerge, it’s all a question of mortality rates and how contagious the disease happens to be. Perhaps the greatest risk is the occurrence of multiple pandemics at the same time.
In actual fact, we’re in the middle of 3 pandemics right now. Both HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have been designated pandemics by both the CDC and WHO in addition to COVID-19, although AIDS and TB have recently been scaled back to epidemics.
And that gets to the worst-case scenario. When pandemics and epidemics start to occur in layers with wave after wave due to the melting of arctic permafrost and an ever-growing and crowded population, social distancing may not be just a necessary solution to a sudden and unforeseen outbreak, but a new way of life.
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