The Emerging threat to Humans

The consequences of global pandemic COVID-19 have traumatized the whole world. In this scenario, we are entrusted to take all the possible measures to protect the world from another such pandemic occurring. According to the World Health Organization “Disease X” is hypothetical for now, an outbreak that scientists and public health experts fear could lead to serious disease around the world if and when it occurs”. “X” stands for unexpected.

According to Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976 and has been on the frontline of the hunt for new pathogens ever since humans facing an unknown number of new and potentially fatal viruses emerging from Africa’s tropical rainforests. CNN reports his statement, “We are now in a world where new pathogens will come out, and that is what constitutes a threat for humanity.”

As a young researcher, Muyembe took the first blood samples from the victims of a mysterious disease that caused haemorrhages and killed about 88% of patients and 80% of the staff who were working at the Yambuku Mission Hospital when the disease was first discovered. The vials of blood were sent to Belgium and the US, where scientists found a worm-shaped virus. They called it “Ebola,” after the river close to the outbreak in the country that was then known as Zaire. The identification of Ebola relied on a chain that connected the most remote parts of Africa’s rainforests to high-tech laboratories in the West. Now, the West must rely on African scientists in the Congo and elsewhere to act as the sentinels to warn against future diseases.

In Ingende, the fears of encountering a new, deadly, virus remained very real even after the recovery of the patient showing symptoms that looked like Ebola. Her samples were tested on-site and sent on to the Congo’s National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) in Kinshasa, where they were further tested for other diseases with similar symptoms. All came back negative, the illness that affected her remains a mystery.

Since the first animal-to-human infection, yellow fever was identified in 1901, scientists have found at least another 200 viruses known to cause disease in humans. According to research by Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, new species of viruses are being discovered at a rate of three to four a year. The majority of them originate from animals. Experts say the rising number of emerging viruses is largely the result of ecological destruction and wildlife trade. As their natural habitats disappear, animals like rats, bats, and insects survive where larger animals get wiped out. They’re able to live alongside human beings and are frequently suspected of being the vectors that can carry new diseases to humans.

Scientists have linked past Ebola outbreaks to the heavy human incursion into the rainforest. In one 2017 study, researchers used satellite data to determine that 25 of the 27 Ebola outbreaks located along the limits of the rainforest biome in Central and West Africa between 2001 and 2014 began in places that had experienced deforestation about two years prior. They added that zoonotic Ebola outbreaks appeared in areas where human population density was high and where the virus has favourable conditions, but that the relative importance of forest loss is partially independent of these factors. In the first 14 years of the 21st century, an area larger than the size of Bangladesh was felled in the Congo River basin rainforest.

The United Nations has warned that if the current deforestation and population growth trends continue, the country’s rainforest may have completely disappeared by the end of the century. As that happens, animals and the viruses they carry will collide with people in new and often disastrous ways

A multidisciplinary group of scientists based across the US, China, Kenya and Brazil has calculated that a global investment of $30 billion a year into projects to protect rainforests, halt the wildlife trade and farming would be enough to offset the cost of preventing future pandemics. Writing in the journal Science, the group said spending $9.6 billion a year on global forest protection schemes could lead to a 40% reduction in global deforestation in areas at the highest risk of virus spillover. This could include incentivizing the people living in and making their living from the forests, and banning widespread logging and the commercialization of the wildlife trade.

A similar program in Brazil led to a 70% decline in deforestation between 2005 and 2012, the scientists said. While $30 billion a year may sound like a lot, scientists argue that the investment would quickly pay for itself. The coronavirus pandemic will cost the US alone an estimated $16 trillion over the next 10 years, according to Harvard economists David Cutler and Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary. The IMF estimates that globally, the pandemic will cost $28 trillion in lost output between 2020 and 2025, relative to pre-pandemic projections.

Exactly how Ebola first infected humans remains a mystery, but scientists believe zoonotic illnesses like Ebola and Covid-19 make the leap when wild animals are butchered. So-called “bushmeat” is the traditional source of protein for people living in the rainforests, but it is now traded far from where it’s sourced and exported globally. The UN estimates that as much as 5 million tons of bushmeat are taken from the Congo River basin each year.

Adams Cassinga, CEO of Conserv Congo and a wildlife crime investigator, has said CNN that investigations have shown that “in Kinshasa alone, we have between five and 15 tons of bushmeat exported … some go to the Americas … but the biggest part goes to Europe. Mainly to Brussels, Paris and London.” Smoked monkeys, soot-blackened sections of python, and fly-blown hams of sitatunga, a water-dwelling antelope, are gruesome. But they’re unlikely to be carrying dangerous viruses, which would be killed by the cooking process — although scientists have warned that even cooked primate meat is not completely safe.

“Disease X” may be ticking away inside any one of these animals, brought to the metropolis by poor people serving the tastes of the rich for exotic meals and pets.

Scientists have previously linked these kinds of wet markets to zoonotic diseases. The H5N1 influenza virus, known as the avian flu, and SARS both emerged from them. The exact origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has not been confirmed. But the greatest suspicion for its source has fallen on “wet” markets where live animals are sold and butchered for meat. The commercialization of the bushmeat trade is a potential route for infection. It’s also a symptom of the devastation of the Congo tropical rainforest, the world’s second-largest after the Amazon.

Most of the destruction is driven by local farmers, who rely on the forest economically — 84% of forest clearance is to make room for small scale agriculture. Yet the slash and burn techniques used by the locals increase human exposure to this once-virgin territory and its wild animals, a major risk factor for the disease.

Once a new virus begins circulating among humans, the consequences of a brief encounter at the edge of a forest or a wet market could be devastating. Covid-19 has shown that. Ebola has proved it. And in most scientific publications, there is an assumption that there will be more contagions coming as humans continue to destroy wilderness habitats. It’s not an “IF” it’s a “WHEN”.

The solution is clear. Protect the forests to protect humanity because Mother Nature has deadly weapons in her armoury.


By Jumana Jabeer.

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