“Humanity is playing a losing game with respect to emerging diseases, mostly by failing to internalise the scope and cost of the crisis. We need to find these pathogens before they find us.”
“I believe we have about a decade to begin coping seriously with what is coming. Any major programme not started in the next ten years may not be worth starting. It’s about anticipating in order to mitigate.”
These are the opinions of Prof. Daniel Brooks, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto and current STIAS fellow.
“The emerging infectious disease (EID) crisis constitutes an existential threat to technological humanity of global proportions,” he continued. “The crisis is commonly portrayed as a few highly publicised viruses restricted to humans in tropical countries. In reality, it encompasses all pathogens affecting humans and all species upon which humans depend for survival and for socio-economic development and growth.”
“We live in a minefield of evolutionary accidents waiting to happen,” he continued. “Pathogens are the only species that are coping well with climate change which we study extensively – we should be studying other species that are coping well with climate change to understand why. We need to be more Darwin and less Rousseau.”
“The crisis is about diseases we have never seen before as well as the re-emergence of diseases we thought were eradicated.”
“We have to change from a crisis-response paradigm to a proactive one. The last Ebola crisis alone cost about $4 billion – so crisis response is not sustainable and ignoring the problems won’t make them disappear.”
“Our failure is exacerbated by over-confidence in our technological capabilities, coupled with ignorance of fundamental evolutionary principles.”
“Existing pathogen-host theories are not consistent with what we are seeing,” he explained. “Co-evolution should act as a firewall to prevent against emerging diseases and pathogens should only be able to move between hosts with extensive mutation. But, if we look at the Zika Virus for example, it’s found in lots of different hosts and seems able to jump to new hosts and co-adapt.”
“There is more pathogen diversity and more host switching,” he said. “I believe that climate change, population growth and globalisation are allowing pathogens to move around more quickly. Globalisation means that more susceptible hosts are coming into contact with more pathogens. People are living in places they haven’t lived before and coming into contact with pathogens we didn’t know were there. Human population growth means that humans are living in higher densities, increasing the chances of passing infections once they become established.”
“Our inattention has allowed pathogens to be better at finding us than we have been at finding them,” he added.
He outlined the usual pattern followed by a pathogen which comprises an initial acute disease outbreak until the pathogen encounters resistant genotypes in the population, then the pathogen becomes ‘pathogen pollution’ with the potential for future outbreaks in susceptible humans or animals. “They never actually leave,” he said.
Prof. Brooks also elaborated on the Stockholm Paradigm, a ‘new’ conceptual framework, although its elements are well established scientifically, that explains the ease with which pathogens are seizing the opportunity to shift to new hosts without genetic changes.
“This makes the planet an evolutionary minefield of potential EID,” he said.
He explained that the project he is undertaking while at STIAS is twofold: (1) outlining a scientific elaboration of the Stockholm Paradigm and its implications for climate change and emerging disease and, (2) making proposals based on this for policy-makers.
Brooks pointed out that ironically the emerging disease crisis is an indication that the biosphere is beginning to cope with climate change. “The biosphere is an evolutionary system that has coped with major extinction events before and survived – in fact it could be argued that humanity emerged in a unique period of extended climatic stability,” he said.
“We will lose species – possibly up to 50% of species – but the planet will survive,” he continued. “We may lose many humans, but Homo sapiens as a species will survive. What is at risk is technological humanity. And many of our children cannot survive in a non-technologically driven world.”
“Major technologically advanced cities are particularly susceptible to disease outbreaks and these will tend to affect the people within those cities with the least access to the educational system and primary health care.”
“Large, densely populated cities are vulnerable in ways not generally appreciated.”
Brooks outlined different potential scenarios – if there is a rural pandemic and the rural areas collapse, then the cities will starve and the technological centres will crash. An urban-based pandemic may mean the rural areas survive but again technology still crashes. “A semi-soft landing might be a regional crash in the human population but technology is able to recover before the next crash hits in another place.”
Brooks advocated the immediate need for mitigating actions.
“Biodiversity, disease, and climate change are linked, and integrating the fundamental evolutionary nature of diversifying life can allow us to ‘buy time’ and save resources in our efforts to cope with emerging diseases,” he said.
“We need to ‘anticipate to mitigate’ the impact of EIDs and climate change on humanity, while we search for ways to achieve a more sustainable existence. This is embodied in the DAMA protocol – we need to Document (50% of the species on earth are pathogens but we have documented less than 10% of them), Assess, Monitor and Act.”
“With proper co-operation countries might be able to keep technological humanity functioning,” he continued. “But it will mean substantial changes to the way we live and co-operation, political commitment, community involvement and the emergence of citizen scientists.”
“We can’t afford any more expensive lessons in denial,” he said. “Global climate change is an equal opportunity phenomenon. Not only is it happening, but it’s happening at an increasing rate.”
“We are not going to stop climate change. We have only one choice – we can adapt or we can let it overwhelm us. If we continue as we are, the future will be decided for us.”
“Time is short, the danger is great and we are unprepared,” he concluded. “We knew about this 60 years ago. Every US President since Eisenhower has failed to act on climate change. But no other country has done anything substantive that has slowed the global effects of climate change.”
“No one is to blame but it’s everybody’s fault.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw