“COVID-19 is mild compared to what’s out there. This will happen again and again, and every time it may be worse. We need to find problems before they find us. We need to find disease-causing organisms that are currently present but not causing disease – so that we know what’s coming, see the warning signs and can reduce our exposure. We must find the reservoir hosts. We need to make it difficult for these pathogens to establish themselves,” said Prof. Daniel Brooks, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto and STIAS fellow. Brooks was presenting an online webinar for the City University of New York.
“Welcome to my first presentation in the middle of the new normal,” he said. “Get used to it, it can only get worse.”
Brooks explained that the emergence of viruses like COVID-19 was only a matter of time.
“We have been blindsided by something we should have known about and prepared for.”
He explained that climate change, population growth and globalisation are allowing pathogens to move around more quickly. There is more pathogen diversity, more host switching and susceptible hosts are coming into contact with pathogens to which they have no resistance.
“Climate change unites humanity as never before,” he said. “It’s an amazing, unifying force which doesn’t distinguish according to borders, society, economics, politics or religion. We are united even if we don’t want to be.”
“People are living in places they haven’t lived in before, in higher densities and coming into contact with pathogens we didn’t know were there. We are coming across diseases we have never seen before or that we thought we had eradicated. This is affecting humans as well as the things we rely on – like crops and livestock.”
“Emerging diseases cost the world $1.3 trillion annually – more than the GDP of all but 11 countries. We can double that for COVID-19 alone.”
He also pointed out that the growth of cities and, in particular, mega-cities are part of the problem.
“Historically people fled climate change and disease. Sedentarism and urbanisation take away that evolutionary escape route. We are linked to particular places and less able to flee from danger.”
“In 1918 only 14% of the world’s population lived in cities, by the 1950s it was 30% and by 2050 it is estimated at 70%.”
“Green spaces in cities also offer a safe environment for zoonotic disease vectors,” he added.
“Cities are traps – incubators that are usually 2 – 3 degrees warmer and dependent on constant flows of energy, water and material goods all of which offer more pathways for pathogens. There is high population density, low kinship, extreme division and specialisation of labour, and interdependency. If a small number of specialised functions are stopped by workers becoming sick cities don’t work.”
“In addition, the urban lifestyle is supported by a largely invisible ‘underclass’ – usually poorly educated and paid who do the types of jobs that place them in harm’s way. They are the most vulnerable who cannot afford to stay at home if they are ill.”
“It’s an evolutionary minefield – an evolutionary accident waiting to happen,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter where or who you are there is potential disease in your backyard.”
Anticipate to mitigate
Brooks emphasised the urgent need to be proactive and to not be always responding in crisis mode.
“We wait for the outbreak,” he said, “rush to deal with it and hope it won’t happen again. And we think we are doing the best we can. This is not working.”
“There is no sense of us being proactive. We could be doing a lot more. We are running out of time.”
He emphasised the need to document, assess, monitor and act – the DAMA model.
“Scientists are good at assessing and monitoring but they then hand over the implementation to policy makers,” he continued. “We have not been effective at convincing them to invest in truly proactive measures.”
“We need to create citizen scientists who can report changes in their immediate environment. We need to tap into young people – their drive, enthusiasm, creativity and anger. It’s the younger generation that will have to live through this.”
He also emphasised the need to use all the technology at our disposal including machine learning, genomics and satellite surveillance.
“We need to find viruses in the environment, do phylogenetic triage and match them to known pathogens and reservoirs. Then we constantly monitor.”
“We know Corona originated in bats. The recombinant genetic variant probably passed into other mammals and eventually into humans. The ability to predict and monitor this stepping stones dynamic is vitally important.”
“This is more than just a plea for more science funding,” he added. “This is a public policy not a science project.”
“COVID-19 will reappear in coming seasons, it will become established,” he explained. “However, resistance will increase over time and this will help with subsequent outbreaks. We should be looking now for new reservoir hosts and taking active measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
He also pointed to the urgency to monitor other pandemics which are playing out below the spotlight.
“Other pandemics are already happening more rapidly than we think,” he said. “They don’t all make the headlines. For example, African Swine Fever, which could eventually destroy the pork industry, and rust fungus in wheat which could lead to the extinction of wheat farming – wheat is currently about 25% of human carbohydrate intake. No one is talking about these.”
“Crop diseases are under-appreciated and under-funded. Rich countries don’t consider the links with public health, they see them as part of the cost of doing business.”
“Crises like the one we are in are never just one thing,” he continued. “They are a string of events, interconnected, but with no specific plan. If we are not paying attention to the consequences of these seemingly unrelated events, it blows up in our faces.”
“Right now everything is triage. But the more co-operation, the more we will save. We have to co-operate with our neighbours even if we don’t like them. Pathogens don’t care if we like each other. However, if we find out how to co-operate proactively to fight this pandemic we can use this in other areas that require similar global co-operation.”
“This all goes against the economically driven neoliberal agenda – but we can’t keep doing the same thing if it’s not working,” he concluded.
Brooks is co-author of a 2019 book, The Stockholm Paradigm: Climate Change and Emerging Disease, much of which was written at STIAS.
The full webinar is available at https://bluejeans.com/s/aMGUv/.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS