Environmental Destruction Brought Us COVID-19
What It Brings Next Could Be Far Worse.
A virus that originated in animals has upended life across the globe. But the next deadly pandemic could make this look like “a warmup.”
Dr. Richard Kock was on duty at London’s Royal Veterinary College in January 2017 when he received an urgent message from international health officials. He was needed for an emergency response mission in the Mongolian countryside, where a deadly viral outbreak was underway.
He packed his things, caught a flight to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and drove for two days into the arid steppe. He found a disturbing scene: frozen corpses scattered on hillsides, burn pits stacked with bodies and residents addled with anxiety.
But this pandemic was not targeting humans. It was goat plague, a lethal and highly infectious virus that has killed goats, sheep and other small ruminants in huge numbers since it was first detected last century. There is a vaccine, but its application in Mongolia had been botched. The virus had spilled from domestic livestock into local populations of critically endangered saiga antelope, and it wiped out about 85% of the infected, Kock said.
“Nearly everything died across a huge landscape,” said Kock, who has worked for decades to stem infectious diseases around the world. There are only a few thousand saiga antelope left in Mongolia today, largely due to the goat plague.
The only comforting element of this tale is that the disease is not transmissible to humans. At least, not yet.
There are millions of viruses and bacteria out there that reside in wild animals and can potentially infect humans, and these emerging diseases are on the rise everywhere as humans disrupt ecosystems and exploit animal habitat across the globe. We are living in an age of pandemics, and the next one — let’s call it “Disease X,” as scientists often do — could be even more devastating than COVID-19.
A Plague Rooted In Environmental Destruction
Political leaders are taking unprecedented measures to contain a virus that has infected at least 2.31 million people, killed at least 157,000 and forced national economies to their knees. Yet those unprecedented measures address only the symptoms of this crisis, an entirely reactionary response that has so far avoided addressing the root causes of novel disease emergence.
“COVID-19 is just the latest zoonotic disease to emerge that has its roots in the rampant habitat loss occurring around the world and the burgeoning wildlife trade,” a group of more than 100 conservation organizations wrote in a letter to the U.S. Congress last month, urging it to include in its stimulus bill new funding to combat the conditions that give rise to outbreaks like COVID-19. “Global pandemics will likely continue and even escalate if action isn’t taken.”