Why Covid and other killer viruses are emerging so rapidly?
Few questions that no one answers despite overwhelming evidence!
Another new Corona variant, almost twice as infective, is on the rampage. The emergence of the Coronavirus shook the world, but it is still mutating dangerously. This emergency was entirely unforeseen, in terms of scale and impact. Bill Gates predicted it, but even he probably does not know how to stop another such emergence. A sci-fi novelist had eerily predicted a few decades earlier that the place of the new virus would be Wuhan, which definitely could not have been a conspiracy theory; but a chilling reminder that the noise and hype – are hiding a lot. Again, Bill Gates, with his depth of immersion in public health, has predicted that another pandemic may not be too far away.
Close to 2 million people have died an untimely and agonizing death and entire continents in turmoil. The number of infections and fatalities seems manipulated intentionally to make politicians look good or missed due to its sheer scale. Most emerging antibody data suggests that the real Covid infection figures are 10 – 50 times higher than official reports. Many of the dead have been buried or cremated untested worldwide, so the accurate mortality figures remain a mystery.
Vaccines that have been announced as successful are being doubted on their ‘touted’ effectiveness vis-à-vis real results. Some vaccines seem to have a political deification as their motive, and others seem driven by profit. Scientific data is often sketchy. Beyond that, the gigantic task of vaccination is itself going to cost billions, and for many types of vaccine, the present cold chain delivery may not be enough.
More and more viruses are marching gleefully to exterminate humans. Not only have they made terrorism and wars look small, but they also seem to be gaining the upper hand over us. That is not the complete story since why this is happening is being glossed over, all the time.
Don’t we need to tread back into the Flu viruses’ history to understand what we may have missed? Any failure to stop the emergence of new viruses after this bitter lesson may prove so expensive that it may pave the way for a near-annihilation of our species by nothing more severe than a unique variety of common cold. If this statement sounds too far-fetched, then it only means that we have learnt nothing from Covid-19.
Have we learnt the right lessons? Have we even asked the right questions? Have we thought deeply enough about the reasons behind the relentless emergence of newer viruses? Are we going to have another virus coming back at us with a vengeance soon? What can we do to prevent this?
Let us look at the other simultaneously ongoing viral pandemics/outbreaks, whose origins have been somewhat deliberately ignored, and dig a little deeper into them.
As a useful reference point, we need to start from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
HIV – The Origins
HIV, better known by the disease AIDS it causes in human beings, kills a million-plus people every year. Although it is partially controllable with expensive drugs, no cure or vaccine has yet been found. But the most exciting part is its origin.
HIV was derived from the various types of apes pictured above, or more precisely, by humans eating those apes. There is enough published research to prove that this is indeed the case, and it is not a wildly speculative theory.
As we started eating these apes, a type of meat referred to as bushmeat over a while, this virus evolved into HIV 1 and 2, helped by the fact that the same geographic zone in Africa was also home to high levels of sexual promiscuity and prostitution.
So, the goodness-gracious-humans acquiring an animal virus by merely eating bushmeat was not enough; we went a step forward to make the virus stronger by making it interact with humanity’s ancient scourge ‘syphilis’, that furthered its transmission. At one point in time, 45 per cent of women in Belgian Congo were reportedly engaging in prostitution. The carriage rates of a dangerous, sexually transmitted disease called Syphilis were very high. This transpired around 1910 onwards, while the disease was formally found widespread among American gay communities by the 1970s. Call it the wages-of-sin or the result of (un)natural evolution – the only common thread has been that we have gifted ourselves a deadly virus.
Scientific research has made these damning conclusions, of human behaviour repeatedly bringing misery onto ourselves. The truth is merely a google search away if anyone cares to find out. Even with 40 million infected with HIV worldwide, 2 million new cases every year, and about a million deaths, no one has addressed the root cause behind the pandemic – modifying human behaviour. Can we afford more viruses?
Swine Flu – The Origins
It has been around 1918, when the ancestral virus of avian origin, jumped species and infected humans as human H1N1. Next, the virus jumped from humans to pigs because of close interactivity. That led to the emergence of the H1N1 swine strain, which was famously named swine flu. As per a scientific study, reportedly an admixture of 4 kinds of viruses was proved by genetic analysis:
• North American and Eurasian Swine (48%) – pig origin
• North American Avian (34.5%) – bird origin
• Human influenza strain (17.5%)
This virus emerged because of what is technically called Quadruple genetic re-assortment. In simple words, if a man or animal is coinfected with influenza viruses from diverse animal species such a hybrid variant results.
As a result, the viruses can marry, interact, mutate, and form a newer variant to which host has variable immunity.
Further rearrangement was reported in 1968 when the avian strain H1N1 infected humans again; this time, the virus bred with the strain H2N2, and this marriage inside infected human bodies resulted in H3N2. This strain has remained a regular flu strain until now. Overall, there are 5-7 disease-causing variants, but their potential to mix and create more viruses is endless.
But why has this virus jumped species and infected humans? Reason one – the proximity of humans to animal reservoirs and the rapid transfer of the viruses through the air through slaughter house operations or even products. From the largest epidemic in 1918, over 100 Million people have been killed worldwide. The last major pandemic affected an estimated one billion people onwards in 2009-2010 and killed almost 300,000s. The seat of the emergence of this flu is generally said to be the pig farms in North America and Mexico although now the virus is on a song worldwide. Of course, this is a hypothesis that remains hotly contested as some scientists try to pin the source to Asia.
But whatever the source maybe- pigs are the common thread and millions are infected. Is that a small number for humanity not to sit up and take note? Especially when this combo is too deadly for children. In a world where we seem to worry endlessly about people killed by any ghastly crimes or accidents – then why are we just glossing over millions of deaths caused by the unholy combination of pigs and poultry?
Technically named Avian influenza, known commonly as bird flu; this is a type of flu caused by viruses specific to birds. The class with the most significant risk is highly aggressive variant called avian influenza (HPAI). While the genetic contribution of these viruses to the so-called Swine Flu has been highlighted earlier, this disease has also been directly responsible for thousands of human deaths. At the same time, millions of poultry are culled every year to stop outbreaks in poultry.
Even as we speak, outbreaks are going on in virtually every country that raises poultry. The developing or under-developed nations do not have the resources to deal with it with the urgency that the problem truly deserves. With reports of Covid-19 being reported in several species including various birds, it takes no rocket science to imagine that a new form of genetic re-assortment or exchange is underway in all these viruses – not only in humans but also the entire variety of animal hosts. While the confirmatory data will emerge in a couple of years, this exchange of genetic material is practically happening every single passing moment as per virus experts. That will give rise to more potent types of viruses, that have features that far surpass the earlier variants. For example, a new strain of Covid-19 has already emerged in the UK and is quickly spreading worldwide – this strain is 70 per cent faster in terms of infecting people. As we take half-hearted countermeasures against Covid-19, the viruses are already on a song using the rich opportunities we have created for viruses to jump into us through pigs and poultry.
We can gauge the importance of this connection because a couple of days ago, crows started dying in Jhalawar in Rajasthan state in India, putting the local administration into a tailspin who have quickly enforced prohibitory orders and started testing the poultry farms in the area. Most of the recent Avian Influenza outbreaks have been reported from China from markets dealing in geese, poultry and pigeon meat, but this has become a widespread phenomenon in poultry farms worldwide.
At any given time, apart from traditional Flu viruses doing their duty of killing half a million people every year, we also have swine flu and bird flu outbreaks around us at all times. It is only that their sheen and glitter has been taken away by the more dangerous Coronavirus, this time around. There are about 30-35 types of these viruses in circulation while a few strains predominate as the immediate threat.
MERS – The Camel Corona
Talk camel meat – and therein lurks the hazard of MERS, another dangerous Coronavirus that kills a large number of people it infects. This virus, known to have its origins in bats, took hold in camels when we started using camels as food. Though this disease is extremely deadly as it kills 35 per cent of those infected, the only saving grace has been that its ability-to-infect has been relatively low. MERS is a dangerous Coronavirus with no cure and has been reported from several countries in the world.
While the precise origins are a matter of intense political rivalry in terms of the overall geo-politics, but the common threads are the Wuhan seafood market, bats or pangolins and perhaps a leak from the local institute of virology. The world has gone through an unprecedented crisis that makes various sci-fi movies ring absolutely right.
With 10 per cent or more of the global population getting infected and nearly 2 million deaths, the scale, size and impact of this unmitigated disaster is too fresh to be discussed in detail.
While the vaccines are clearly on the horizon, newer deadlier strains are again seeming to create a stranglehold.
The entire purpose of this exercise in recapitulating these epidemics is simple – to question what is going on and offer an alternative! Is that being deliberately ignored due to myopic thought, stubbornness and narrowminded refusal to read the writing on the wall? We have still not conquered infectious diseases like Malaria and TB, and there are several other viral diseases like Dengue, Nipah, Chikungunya, etc. With a different set of challenges that are only getting worse with global warming. We have the challenge of malnutrition and over-population looming large, and we cannot fight the emergence of new viruses without a paradigm shift in our thinking. And that paradigm shift is staring right at us if we choose to open our minds.
Answers have never emerged from closed and closeted mindsets. Labelling an argument as vegan or vegetarian propaganda is the oft-repeated technique employed by disinformation specialists worldwide, but seeing the truth broadmindedly, rationally and logically needs a plane of an objective, scientific approach.
The truth is that with the melting pot and breeding ground animal sources of food have become for these viruses; we need to shift to vegetable sources of protein in right earnest. We are only ignoring this at our peril.
There are more than ample reasons beyond viruses to spark this shift in our think – climate change, lifestyle diseases, water scarcity, land use efficiency or reduction of food and resource wastage. There is only one overarching theme through all these problems: meat as a protein source.
Hogs and fowl will overrun an overpopulated planet if we let things go at the current pace. Viruses that ordinarily jump from one species to another are a process that culminates over hundreds of years. Right now we are at a stage where our shortsightedness may have cut that period down to months or a couple of years. Are we indeed the wisest of all species?