Dennis Carroll is an infectious disease scientist who has long known that some kind of horrendous pandemic was coming. And he is not the only one who knew this. Many Scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.
Carroll has been the leading voice about the threat of what is called zoonotic spillover for many years. Zoonotic spillover is the scientific term for the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us.
There are always many reservoirs of dangerous pathogens hiding in various animals. In the right conditions, these pathogens can “spillover” from animals to humans. This situation has been getting worse and worse as humans destroy natural habitat, forcing animals into closer contact with humans.
Carroll has been studying all of this for years.
“In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.”
Most of the information for this post comes from an article in Nautilus Magazine called “The Man Who Saw the Pandemic Coming.” The article is by Kevin Berger. Unless otherwise noted, all of the quotes in this post come from this article.
The above link also gives you access to the entire Nautilus Journal. Nautilus is a pretty impressive science journal that has some very readable science articles. The science has not been watered down, yet the articles are readable by the average layman. You can subscribe to the journal for $29.00 a year or for $2.90 a month. I have to say that I am pretty excited by this site. This is real science I can read and understand at a very affordable price.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Nature Journal is also a very prestigious science journal that also has many articles very readable by a layman.
Christine K Johnson, an epidemiologist at UC Davis and also an investigator at PREDICT says that,
“Dennis Carroll was a pioneer in looking beyond livestock. “Dennis saw that emerging infectious diseases, far and wide, have mostly come from wildlife, and there needed to be investment in research in the wildlife sector.” For a decade, PREDICT received annual federal funding of $15 to $20 million. In 2019, its funding wasn’t renewed.”
[Trump and the Republicans ended the funding of PREDICT and thus greatly increased the chances of a pandemic like Covid-19 emerging.]
For years PREDICT was the front line for the prediction and containment of viral disease transmissions from wild animals to humans. Many new pandemics were prevented by Dennis Carroll and his program.
When Trump and the Republicans ended the funding of PREDICT, Carroll left USAID and formed a new program, the Global Virome Project, “to build on PREDICT’s scientific insights and experience.”
Carroll says that now that the Corona virus has escaped we are looking at a disaster. He says that the Corona pandemic “is a global event. It is going to hit every community everywhere in the world.” Carroll and other scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.
Carroll and most other epidemiologists “are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats.” Carroll says that scientists don’t know exactly how this happened, but most probably it passed from bats in the Wuhan wet market to humans. It may have passed directly to humans or there may have been an intermediate animal it passed through before humans caught it. This is what happened in the 2002 SARS epidemic when the virus passed first to civit cats and then to people.
For people to catch a virus from animals, it’s not necessary for a person to eat the animal. After a bat or other animal is cooked the virus is usually dead. The transmission mostly happens in when people are somehow exposed to bodily fluids, blood, and secretions from the animals. This usually happens in wet market in places like China or Africa.
Carroll says that before we can head off these spillover infections from wild animals to humans we first need to understand about the diversity and ecology of viral threats.
Firstly, says Carroll, we need to understand that all the future threats we are going to face already exist. “These threats are currently circulating in wildlife. Think of it as viral dark matter. A large pool of viruses are circulating and we don’t become familiar with them until we see a spillover event and people getting ill. Scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.
Bats have a particularly high potential for spillover. Carroll says that “We’ve been able to identify bats as reservoirs for coronaviruses and documented specific bat populations as reservoirs for Ebola virus.”
Carroll goes on to say that when we disturb wild environments, we begin to get many more spillover epidemics. He is saying exactly the same thing that Sonia Shaw said in her essay in The Nation. Both Carroll and Shah say that it is mainly human destruction of environment and natural habitat that leads to spillovers and epidemics.
Here is Carroll on this:
“The disturbances in wild environments are done by us humans. We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before.
In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection.
Spillover events are much more common now than 50 years ago. EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO, and others, looked at all reported outbreaks since 1940.
They came to a fairly solid conclusion that we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. Many things led to increases in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change—more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.
I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event.”
David Quammen in his wonderful book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” says the same thing. He says that human disruptions of the the natural wild places on our earth being us closer and closer to wild animals and make spillover of animal viruses into humans inevitable.
Quammen’s book was published in 2014, but, even then, he and many, many epidemiologists knew very well that it was just a matter of time before the next big pandemic would hit humans. Unfortunately, as we now know, he was exactly right. Scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.
Here is a quotation from Quammens book:
“To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.
There are three elements to the situation.
Mankind’s activities are causing the disintegration (a word chosen carefully) of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. We all know the rough outlines of that problem. By way of logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals, clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change, and other “civilizing” incursions upon natural landscape—by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart.
This much isn’t new. Humans have been practicing most of those activities, using simple tools, for a very long time. But now, with 7 billion people alive and modern technology in their hands, the cumulative impacts are becoming critical.”
Quammen, David. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (p. 40). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Carroll says that the current Corona outbreak or some kind of animal related pandemic was inevitable. He says it was clearly predictable and it was predicted by many scientists:
“Oh, sure. It was predictable. It’s like if you had no traffic laws and were constantly finding pedestrians getting whacked by cars as they crossed the street. Is that surprising? No. All you need to do is to better manage how we set up crosswalks, how we establish traffic rules and regulations. We’re not doing that. We’re not establishing the kind of safe practices that will minimize the opportunity for spillover. If we better understood where these viruses are circulating and understood that ecology, we would have the potential to disrupt and minimize the risk of spillover.”
Carroll goes on to say, that the tremendous increase in human population has a lot to do with the sudden disruption of natural habitats. A hundred years ago there were 6 billion fewer people on this planet. Sudden changes are a tremendous disruption of the earths ecosystem and you have to expect certain changes that will not be beneficial to a lot of animals, including humans.
And, Carroll says, government and societies don’t change very fast. They are governed by inertia. Natural systems change very slowly and us humans don’t realize it is happening. The results are often catastrophic.
Governments and society by and large are governed by inertia. We don’t change and adapt and evolve very quickly. And we’re barely cognizant as a global society that the world we’re living in today is fundamentally different than the world our species has ever lived in.
You know that old saw that if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will leap out. But if you take that same frog and put it in a pot of ambient water and slowly crank up the temperature, it will stay in that water and boil to death. It loses perspective on the changing environment around it. We’re that frog in the ambient water. We’re oblivious to the conditions that have enabled zoonotic viruses to become integrated into us.
There is a lot more to Kevin Berger’s article about Dennis Carroll and his early realization that the spillover of animal virus into humans would sooner or later result in many new human pandemics. And he points out several other ways in which scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.
But I’ll leave it to you to read the rest. There is link to this article in my bibliography below.
There is also a link to David Quammen’s book “Spillover”, which I highly recommend.
Other reading on this subject
There are a lot of really good books about zoonotic spillover. Zoonotic spillover is the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. All of these books emphasize that the majority of recent epidemics and pandemics are zoonotic, ie they have originated in animal reservoirs and then transmitted to humans. And, of course, this is exactly what has happened in the current Corona pandemic. The virus started in bats being sold in a wuhan wet market and then spilled over into humans. The virus may or may not have passed thru an intermediate animal, the pangolin.
Below is my bibliography of books and articles about zoonotic spillovers and human pandemics.
Scientists predicted the corona pandemic or one very like it.