It’s clear enough from the discarded masks and gloves polluting landscapes and the ocean that many humans have not grasped the environmental message of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Now we must become more proactive to avoid another pandemic and address endemic zoonotic diseases,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “This means recognizing that human health, animal health and planetary health cannot be separated, and planning our responses accordingly.”
Since COVID-19 swept across the globe earlier this year, scientists have documented the ways that the virus emerged from—and worsened because of—human interaction with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the wild spaces that surround us. Among the lessons they’ve learned:
1 Clean The Air
Air pollution is known to cause many of the underlying conditions—the notorious co-morbidities like lung and heart disease—that render coronavirus lethal for some patients. But that’s not the only way COVID-19 interacts with air pollution.
Early in Italy’s outbreak, a team of scientists led by the University of Bologna’s Leonardo Setti found COVID-19 RNA attached to particles of air pollution in Bergamo. Setti’s discovery raises the possibility that COVID-19 travels on particulate air pollution.
“This is the first preliminary evidence that SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be present on outdoor particulate matter,” Setti writes in Environmental Research, “thus suggesting that, in conditions of atmospheric stability and high concentrations of PM, SARS-CoV-2 could create clusters with outdoor PM and, by reducing their diffusion coefficient, enhance the persistence of the virus in the atmosphere.”
A subsequent study by Romanian scientists compared particulate air pollution levels in Milan from January to April to COVID total cases, new cases, and deaths.
“In spite of being considered primarily transmitted by indoor bioaerosols, droplets and infected surfaces, or direct human-to-human personal contacts, it seems that high levels of urban air pollution, weather and specific climate conditions have a significant impact on the increased rates of confirmed COVID-19,” the Romanians conclude.
Valentina Bosetti, a senior scientist at the European Institute on Economics and the Environment, confirmed that there are two ways air pollution may influence how COVID affects people: by causing preconditions and by keeping the virus aloft longer.
“Both angles are interesting,” Bosetti said on Resources Radio, but finer data on air pollution is needed. “I think it’s very hard to get the final word on this.”
2 Preserve Wild Spaces
In the wake of HIV, Ebola and SARS, scientists documented a potential path for viruses from bats, who have an enviable immunity to them, through other mammals to humans. Some scientists and doctors have further argued that path is paved by deforestation.
“Deforestation and the sale of live wild animals or bushmeat, such as bats and monkeys, make the emergence of new viruses inevitable, while population growth, dense urbanization and human migration make their spread easier,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, head of the GAVI Alliance—a non-profit international vaccine initiative—writing in Scientific American.
Bats are not the problem, scientists agree. In fact, their immune systems may hold the answer to viral epidemics, they are not the primary carrier of these viruses to humans, and when these zoonotic diseases do reach humans, it is typically through human activity.
3 Broaden Our Notion of Health
“COVID-19 is one of the worst zoonotic diseases, but it is not the first,” said UNEP’s Anderson. “Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever preceded it. In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Sixty per cent of known infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Over the last two decades and before COVID-19, zoonotic diseases caused economic damage of $100 billion.”
There are many solutions, Anderson said, which also serve as solutions for climate change and biodiversity loss: stop exploiting wildlife and natural resources, farm sustainably, reverse land degradation and protect ecosystem health.
But Anderson believes we also must stop thinking of human health separately from animal health and environmental health.
“Part of this process is the urgent adoption of integrated human, animal and environmental health expertise and policy – a One Health approach. One Health is not new, but uneven uptake and institutional support means it hasn’t hit its potential. The weakest link in the chain is environmental health. We have to fix this.”
4 Just Eat Plants
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called in April for the closure of live-animal markets like the one in Wuhan where COVID-19 is believed to have leapt from animals to humans:
“I think they should shut down those things right away,” he told the hosts of Fox & Friends. “It boggles my mind when you have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down.”
But some doctors see little distinction between Wuhan’s live-animal market and the live-animal slaughterhouses and meat processing centers in the West.
There are 15 diseases in cattle with the potential to leap to humans, according to Virginia State University’s cooperative extension, including anthrax, salmonellosis and tuberculosis. Chickens also carry salmonella, as well as bird flu, campylobacter, and E. coli. In July, the Centers for Disease Control raised the alarm about an evolving H1n1 influenza—a swine flu—with characteristics suggesting it could leap to humans.
Those diseases may spring less of a surprise than COVID-19 did, but the novel coronavirus too has demonstrated a close relationship with meat handling, even in the West.
“Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 among meat and poultry processing facility workers have occurred in the United States recently,” the CDC reported this month.
Writing in the brand-new Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention, a group of Chicago doctors cited these facts—as well as the relationship between meat consumption and heart disease—as they called for a reassessment of the human diet:
“Given that the two largest pandemics in the past 100 years revolve around our food choices—specifically, the consumption of animals—we would propose a global moratorium on this,” write Dr. Mashaal Ikram and Dr. Waddah Malas of Mercy Hospital and Rush University Chief of Cardiology Kim Allan Williams, Sr., “and re-evaluation of our food sources and nutritional choices.”
5 Listen To Science
On the bright side, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated a human ability to respond to environmental threats at the individual level on a global scale.
“The general public has been compliant—I would say surprisingly compliant—accepting changes in their lives that are uncomfortable if not wrenching,” said Princeton theoretical physicist Robert Socolow, who has focused in his career on human interactions with their natural environment.
“The words widely spoken these five months have been identical” to the messaging around climate change, he said: “You must listen to the scientists. But in this case the scientists have been listened to.”
Unfortunately, our species seems willing to listen only when faced with imminent threats, letting long-term threats like climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution worsen.
“It’s very hard for the human brain to get very excited about things that aren’t happening now,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert told NPR. “That’s why people have trouble getting up and flossing in the morning—because the dental problems that they’re going to accrue are pretty far off.”
As long as we don’t floss away pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss, they will continue to throw more and more immediate threats, including more pandemics, in our direction.
So the coronavirus pandemic offers vital lessons for future threats.
“The U.S. has fared worse than other countries not because it lacked information or funding,” said Dr. Ali S. Khan, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “but because it failed to learn the lessons of the last outbreaks.”