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Is Monkeypox the New Pandemic Threat? Virus Spillover and the Scary Future

Viruses jump species when the barriers between them and us are destroyed, but how can we feed our population of billions and still maintain the buffer zones?

Overpopulation, the root cause of environmental degradation and its consequences. Wikipedia

Today we should fear virus spillover more than ever before, because there are factors causing it that we can no longer control. Why? Because the population will continue to explode (barring some apocalyptic catastrophe) with terrifying results… A chicken farm next to a housing development instead of a rural setting is much more likely to spread disease if an infection runs through the fowl population. Remember that HIV jumped species--from a primate to a human. Novel Coronavirus did the same…

A few days ago, on November 18, I read a news article that turned my blood to ice: a second case of monkeypox had been confirmed in Maryland, in a traveler returning from Nigeria. The first case was recorded in Texas in July.

The report went on to assure us that, “The person was in isolation with mild symptoms but was not hospitalized, the Maryland Department of Health said in a statement on Tuesday.”

Does this sound familiar? Think back to January and even February of 2020 when the first alarm bells were being sounded about Novel coronavirus, Covid-19, and the false reassurance that accompanied that news. I’m not saying that the monkeypox is about to hit us with another pandemic, but I am saying that we should consider such a possibility for the future.

As is frequent with viruses, we don’t yet know much about it. Here are some things that we do know:

  • A large outbreak was reported in the US in 2003.
  • The outbreak was linked to “infected exotic pets imported from Ghana, which in turn infected some prairie dogs sold as pets.”
  • The virus is transmitted to people from infected animals, entering through cuts in the skin, the respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes around the eyes or in the nose and mouth.
  • “Person-to-person transmission can occur, and is thought to occur mainly through virus-laced droplets. But direct contact with lesions or bodily fluids from an infected person, or indirect contact via contaminated clothing or linens, can also result in transmission.”
  • Contrary to what we might believe from its name, it is not caused by monkeys. Rather, “A number of African rodent species are known to be susceptible to the virus and have been seen to be involved in its transmission.”
  • The disease can be deadly, and in Africa it is seen to be fatal in about 10% of the time.
  • It is an unintended consequence of the eradication of smallpox, and therefore people who were not vaccinated in their youth against smallpox are more susceptible to catching it.

This news about the monkeypox, coming on the heels of the Covid pandemic, is truly frightening—especially if we envision the scenario of someday having to battle a double and concurrent pandemic. Yet this is a situation that sadly will be a part of our future as the WHO and similar agencies predict that pandemics will become more frequent in the future. The Center for Global Development has advised that, “The next pandemic could come sooner and be deadlier” than the current one.

Let’s face it, human beings and the planet are in big trouble: overpopulation, dwindling resources and widespread war and disease. Indeed, we’re living through a pandemic, but what most people ignore is that Covid-19 is the third in the last 20 years—and this only if we count those in the Western world and dismiss the many others that have occurred in Africa and elsewhere.

The effects of long-term drought and the drying up of precious wetlands. Photo: Wikipedia

Just in the last few days the World Health Organization reported after an exhaustive probe, that the coronavirus most likely first appeared in humans after jumping from an animal, discrediting an alternate theory that the virus had leaked from a Chinese lab. Apparently, many of the first victims of the disease had connections to the Huanan Seafood Market. As of this writing, more than 255 million people have contracted the virus and 5.1 million have died of it.

Viruses jumping species—or virus spillover as it is called—is not a new thing and not uncommon. Think of the bubonic plague, for example, which is transmitted to human beings via a flea that has been infected by a rat. Also known as the Black Death, it spread globally and killed more than 20 million people in Europe alone, at a time when its total population was about 60 million. Globally it may have killed as many as 75 million when the global population was about 380 million. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent today of almost 2 billion people dying.

Deforestation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Today we should fear virus spillover more than ever before, because there are factors causing it that we can no longer control. Why? Because the population will continue to explode (barring some apocalyptic catastrophe) with terrifying results. “Human activity drives the emergence of new pathogenic (disease-causing) viruses. As we push back the boundaries of the last wild places on Earth – felling the bush for farms and plantations – viruses from wildlife interact with crops, farm animals and people. Species that evolved separately are now mixing. Global markets allow the free trade of live animals (including their eggs, semen and meat), vegetables, flowers, bulbs and seeds – and viruses come along for the ride.” Experts estimate that 75% of new diseases come from animals: pigs in Europe, monkeys in South America, bats in Asia, and so on.

On the same day that I read about monkeypox, November 18, the White House announced a plan to invest billions of dollars to produce at least one billion doses of Covid vaccine a year beginning in the second half of 2022, explaining that “This is about assuring expanded capacity against Covid variants and also preparing for the next pandemic…The goal, in the case of a future pandemic, a future virus, is to have vaccine capability within six to nine months of identification of that pandemic pathogen, and to have enough vaccines for all Americans.” Needless to say, despite the best preparation many thousands of people would die in the 6 to 9 months necessary to get control over the pandemic.

The fear of future pandemics is real; that of having to face multiple pandemics simultaneously should be horrifying. Yet the conditions that would favor such a scenario cannot be dismissed.

As the population continues to multiply exponentially, housing must be proportionately increased. That reduces the natural settings (i.e. farmland, forests, wooded areas). Decreased space means that not only human beings come into closer contact, but that there is less and less nature to serve as a buffer between species. A chicken farm next to a housing development instead of a rural setting is much more likely to spread disease if an infection runs through the fowl population. Remember that HIV jumped species–from a primate to a human. Novel Coronavirus did the same. Avian flu, West Nile disease; we may think of these infectious diseases as “new,” but that’s inaccurate. Instead, what is more prevalent and worrisome is that those infections that were previously confined to the non-human species now jump to humans.

Huanan Wholesale Fish Market. Photo: China Daily

While I was writing this article, a breaking news report was published in The New York Times that traces patient zero of the Covid-19 pandemic as a vendor at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Michael Worobey, a leading expert in tracing the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona, has offered compelling evidence that virus spillover caused the Covid-19 pandemic.

Globalization is also a factor. Species that evolved separately are now mixing. And climate warming allows certain species to expand their geographical range into zones that were previously too cold to inhabit.

The need to feed more people as land resources constantly dwindle through the destruction of forests and wetlands delivers a double whammy that should seriously worry us. Just when we need more food resources we are left with less. It’s a chain reaction that can spell doom for the human species if we don’t get a grip on it. The big question is: how? We don’t have that answer yet, but we must certainly prepare for the consequences that are sure to come in the future.

 

 

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