News | Covid-19
From 5G mobile networks to leaked lab experiments and houseflies, the mystery of the origins of Covid-19 has spurred some interesting theories in the past year.
What disturbs informed and impressionable people alike is that scientists are not significantly closer to finding out what caused the global pandemic than when it first emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019.
This is not for a lack of trying. World Health Organisation (WHO) investigations have not yet been able to pinpoint the main culprit that resulted in the contagious virus.
The head of China’s expert panel on Covid-19, Liang Wannian, said the coronaviruses found in bats and pangolins were not similar enough to be identified as the progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, instead suggesting that feline species and minks, who have been observed with symptomatic Covid-19, could be the missing link – but this is far from proven.
ALSO READ: Blaming animals off the bat for Covid-19 pandemic is wrong
What has almost been ruled out is that Covid-19 originated from a “viral escape” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Peter Ben Embarek, who chairs WHO’s investigative team, said this theory was “extremely unlikely” and that all factors point to Covid-19 having a natural source.
To bolster Embarek’s findings, he said viruses kept in Wuhan’s laboratory were too genetically different to SARS-CoV-2.
Humane Society International (HSI) Africa’s vice-president of wildlife, Dr Teresa Telecky, explained that most emerging infectious diseases have zoonotic sources (of animal origin) and emphasised the importance of Covid-19 being a coronavirus.
“Covid-19 is caused by a virus, SARS-CoV-2, which is very similar to another coronavirus, SARS-CoV, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).”
This is likely where the leap to blame bats originated, as SARS originated in bats and was transmitted to humans through a wildlife market in China where infected civets were being sold.
Bats in China carry SARS viruses, Telecky said. And, as with SARS-CoV, it took years to make this discovery.
Telecky said it would likely “take years” for science to confirm the original and intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2.
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She explained that viruses mutate randomly using an infected cell to replicate itself.
Errors in this process creates new variations and in the case of South Africa’s Covid-19 variant, 501Y.V2, this variation resulted in a more transmissible virus.
Due to this being advantageous for the pesky sickness, the mutation continued to spread, going on to become more dominant than the original virus.
We now know it does more harm than good to blame a specific species for causing Covid-19, especially because it is humans who are at fault, not animals.
In this regard, although Telecky found the thinking surrounding Covid-19 and zoonotic diseases has not changed much since it first emerged, she said the pandemic did get a knee-jerk reaction from Chinese authorities, who promptly banned the sale of wildlife for human consumption.
“That is a very dramatic change that appears to be well implemented and enforced.”
Africa, however, still has a long way to go.
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Aside from Malawi and Gabon, which also banned the consumption of bushmeat and pangolins in a bid to acknowledge the danger in exposing humans to pathogens and zoonosis, the rest of the continent’s informal and unregulated markets continue unabated, explained HSI-Africa wildlife director Audrey Delsink.
“Our major concern is that there has been little official acknowledgement of the relationship between Covid-19 and zoonotic risks associated with wildlife utilisation, intensive farming activities and biodiversity degradation.”
South Africa’s wildlife and agricultural policy changes are due to socio-economic factors, she continued, and not prompted by zoonotic risks and concerns.
Trade such as canned lion hunting and lion bone exports lend themselves to an array of “serious zoonotic risks”, as well as a host of pathogens and parasites.
“There is no doubt that the practice of intensive captive breeding of wild species is a serious zoonotic threat to both animals and humans alike. In South Africa, it is definitely business as usual, as this is a government-sanctioned practice,” Delsink said.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) last year released an “urgent call to protect people and nature” against the increasing risks of more zoonotic viruses emerging.
WWF identified the key drivers for zoonotic disease as “land-use change, expansion and intensification of agricultural and animal production, and the consumption of high-risk wildlife.”
It warned that the negative impact humans have on the natural world increases the risk of future pandemic.
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“In our increasingly globalised world, the probability is higher than ever that a new disease becomes a global pandemic with serious consequences for our health, economies and ecosystems.”
The pandemic has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of livelihoods and accumulated trillions in gross domestic product (GDP) stagnation.
WWF estimates that up to $8.8 trillion (R132 trillion) in output was lost – almost three times the GDP of the UK. Its report stated almost half of the world’s workforce risk losing their jobs, adding that already marginalised groups are now even more threatened.
For wildlife communities, experts and biologists, the pandemic needs to be accompanied by significant change, notably in the way humans interact with nature.
This is not a sentiment curated by “tree huggers”, but is instead an urgent call for people to understand how quickly zoonotic viruses emerge and if drastic change is not realised soon, Covid-19 may seem small potatoes compared to what viruses will emerge in the future.
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