Three years into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, responsible for at least 6.8 million deaths (although the actual number may be closer to 15 million), immeasurable suffering and social unrest , as well as direct and indirect global economic devastation in the order of tens of trillions of US dollars. Just as mask mandates and remaining COVID-19 restrictions are disappearing across the world, the threat of a new global pandemic linked to avian influenza is on the horizon.
Yet suddenly the old polarized and vitriolic discourses about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have erupted again.
Specially trained and continually informed by an abundance of excellent peer-reviewed scientific publications, I try to navigate the tensions between the “most likely” and “low confidence” labels while wondering why the Department of Energy (DOE), the FBI and other agencies feel the need to make public statements in the absence of any significant new public information.
Once again, as a global community, we totally lack the big picture. It is widely recognized that zoonotic spillovers, in which pathogens are transmitted between animals and humans, are the primary cause of emerging infectious diseases and recent pandemics. Indeed, information publicly available to scientists like me overwhelmingly suggests that this is how COVID-19 originally spread to people from wild animals sold at a “wet” market in Wuhan, China. China.
The DOE and FBI have hinted that they have specific new information pointing to a lab leak. By all means, let’s see it. If the Chinese government can be blamed for its lack of transparency, let’s show that we can do better. But unsourced insinuations and statements that amount to “trusting us” cannot be considered evidence that in any way corresponds to real facts documented by rigorous and open science.
I agree that we need better national and international standards and oversight for laboratory biosafety. These must be combined with frank discussions on responsible and sustainable bioresearch. However, we simply cannot afford to be paralyzed by contextless public diatribes about biosafety versus biosafety.
In doing so, we lose sight of the rapidly changing and degrading planet and the ever-increasing interfaces between wildlife, livestock, their pathogens and humans, all caused by relentless human activities and practices.
Over the past three years, governments, international fora, multilateral organizations and civil society have widely recognized the need to manage health, environmental issues and socio-economic factors holistically. This recognition has led to a broad consensus that a One Health framework, which recognizes the interdependence between human health, animal health and the environment, must be implemented across all sectors and several scales.
Several human-related activities – including deforestation, wildlife trade, changes in land use and agricultural practices – are known to increase the risk of zoonotic spread by affecting the frequency, intensity and the type of human contact with wild animals.
These include the clearing and degradation of tropical and subtropical forests, inadequate biosecurity in livestock farming and production, diminishing economic security, and lack of access to health care. for communities living in hotspots of emerging infectious diseases, inadequate pathogen surveillance and, perhaps most importantly, commercial wildlife markets and trade in urban centers.
While it is inexcusable that we should wonder about the actual number of laboratories in existence with the highest level of containment, we cannot let this sad state of affairs distract us from the thousands of legal and illegal live wildlife markets. in major urban agglomerations around the world. These markets can conduct what amounts to unplanned, unsupervised, unregulated and dangerous virus experiments in widely accessible and globally connected public spaces.
In these cauldrons of contagion there are often tightly stacked cages containing various species of stressed live wild animals such as civets, macaques and bats, mixed with domestic fowl and pigs in warm and poorly ventilated. Add clients with naïve immune systems to the mix and you have a perfect Petri dish in which viruses can become more deadly through the exchange, recombination and reassortment of genetic material.
There is absolutely no doubt today that humanity’s fractured relationship with nature has dramatically increased the risk of future pandemics of zoonotic origin. Our ability to adequately prevent, prepare for, and respond to future pandemic threats is compromised by highly polarized, politicized, and entrenched discourses that can sidestep evidence-based facts and leverage unknowing political demonstration.
Despite the daily cacophony of news, notifications and alerts, we must remain singularly focused on addressing the root causes that will prevent the emergence of new pathogens. We know that stopping the spread of disease after a successful spillover is, at best, extremely difficult and most likely impossible in our tightly interconnected and entangled world.
Critically, we must remain grounded in science, nimble in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and false equivalences, as well as able to navigate conflicting priorities and agendas if we are to mobilize our substantive knowledge into action and prevent the scourge of devastating life fallout. our planet.
Chris Walzer is Executive Director of Health at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He is a board-certified wildlife veterinarian, professor of conservation medicine at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, and author of over 100 research publications.
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