Where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

We are just beginning the Corona-virus pandemic. People are beginning to die and it is undoubtably going to get much worse. Scientists say that the pandemic first appeared in a wet market in the Chinese town of Wuhan. They say that it most likely came from a bat or a pangolin or maybe a combination of the two. This is very likely, but the question, where did the Corona pandemic really come from is actually more complex.

Most of the information in this post came from an article in The Nation Magazine by Sonia Shah. The title of the article is “Think Exotic Animals are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.” Shah is also the author of a book called “Pandemic”which was published in 2018. There are links to all the sources of this post at the bottom of this page.

In a very general, underlying sense, pandemics come from the way humans have mistreated the earth for many thousands of years. There are many deeper problems behind the sudden appearance of the current Corona pandemic.

Mount Sneffles in Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Mount Sneffles in Colorado

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One of the major underlying problems is habitat loss. As wild animal habitat is encroached on by humans and as animals are driven into new territory, hundreds of microbial pathogens are beginning to appear where they have never been seen before. This includes HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bunch of new coronaviruses.

We humans are continually destroying wildlife habitat. We cut down and burn forests for farming, mining and drilling. We are constantly building highways, villages, cities and all kinds of new industrial facilities that gobble up habitat.

Habitat destruction forces wild species to cram into smaller and smaller pieces of the remaining habitat and this increases the likelihood they will come into close contact with humans. It’s this kind of repeated, close contact that allows the microbes that normally live in wild animals to cross over into our bodies, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.

Animal pathogens don’t usually make the animals in which they normally live sick. Most of these microbes live harmlessly in animal bodies. But when they enter our human bodies it can be a very different story. They often make us deathly ill. This is one answer to where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

The loss of habitat was largely responsible for the emergence of Ebola. Several studies have linked Ebola to bats that are more likely to live in areas of Africa that have had recent deforestation. Destroying the trees that bats used to live in results in bats moving into trees in people’s backyards and on farms. This brings the bats into closer proximity to humans.

If a human should eat a piece of fruit that has bat saliva on it or kill and eat a bat (which does happens in some African and Asian societies) then microbes in the bat can slip into humans. Events like this are called “spillover” events. It is the spillover of microbes from one species into another. If this happens often enough,  animal microbes can adapt to our bodies and evolve into human pathogens.

Fireweed in Gothic Valley near Crested Butte, Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Fireweed in Gothic Valley near Crested Butte, Colorado

Mosquito-borne diseases have also been linked to recently burned or cut down forests. In this case water can flow into the burnt forest areas much more easily and it pools in new areas that are open to sunlight. This pooled water warms and many mosquitos bred in such puddles. Sonia Shah says that “A study in 12 countries found that mosquito species that carry human pathogens are twice as common in deforested areas compared to intact forests.”

Habitat destruction increases viral epidemics in all kinds of complex ways. When bird populations get squeezed out of their normal habit they often die off. This has happened in North America where bird populations have decreased by more than 25% over the last 50 years. Here is an article on this die-off.

But species don’t decline at uniform rates. Woodpeckers and rails are called specialist bird species; they have very specialized habits and eat only limited kinds of food. They are thus much more vulnerable to loss of habit than generalist birds like robins and crows which can eat almost anything.

So, woodpeckers and rails die off much faster when habitat is lost. But they are poor carriers of West Nile virus while robins or crows excel at it. So when habitat is lost you end up with a lot more robins and crows and thus a much more West Nile virus in bird populations. This means humans are much more likely to get West Nile virus. All it takes is for a mosquito to bite one of the ubiquitous West Nile infected birds and then bite a human. Lately that has been happening a lot more often than it used to.

This is another answer to where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

Glacier Lilies near Crested Butte Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Glacier Lilies near Crested Butte Colorado

According to Shah, habitat destruction also leads to an increase of tick-borne diseases. She says that,

“The expansion of suburbs into the Northeastern forest increases the risk of tick-borne disease by driving out creatures like opossums, which help control tick populations, while improving conditions for species like white-footed mice and deer, which don’t. Tick-borne Lyme disease first emerged in the United States in 1975; in the past 20 years, seven new tick-borne pathogens have followed.”

And it’s not only that habitat is getting eliminated in huge chunks, but it’s also what we are replacing wild habitat with. This also increases the likelihood of epidemics.

Humans have a ravenous appetite for meat. And to feed and care for all of the animals we slaughter and turn into meat, we have razed an area that is almost the size of Africa. That is a lot of habitat destruction.

This sounds rather unbelievable but I think that most of us, including me, just don’t look at the meat industry at all. It’s not a very pretty thing to look at and we would rather just ignore it and eat our steaks in peace.

Bonnyville Peak in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Bonnyville Peak in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming

There is recent book that discusses some of the problems related to meat production and how huge this industry really is. It is called “The Story of More” by Hope Jahren. It is mainly about how humans have lately gone about creating more and more and more of everything, including meat. Jahren is an ecologist and a university professor who also wrote the book “Lab Girls” which is quite good.

Part of Jahren’s book is about the enormous numbers of animals we Americans kill for meat. Jahren says that,

“About one million animals are slaughtered for food every hour in the United States. This slaughter mostly takes place within airport-sized buildings, and huge swaths of the country specialize in different types of killing. Thirty million cattle are slaughtered each year in the Great Plains of Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. A whopping nine billion chickens are slaughtered each year across the Feather Belt that stretches from Arkansas to Georgia. One hundred and twenty million pigs are slaughtered each year in the upper midwest states that surround Iowa.”

Jahren, Hope. The Story of More (p. 43). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Jahren goes on to say that she grew up in a small upper midwestern town in  the epicenter of the pork industry.  She says that in her small hometown an unbelievable number of pigs are killed everyday.   

“I hail from the virtual epicenter of the pork industry. My hometown may not be the cradle of porcine civilization, but it has a pretty good shot at becoming its grave: fully 6 percent of the hogs slaughtered in the United States each year breathe their last within the city limits of my tiny hometown.  Between Fourth and Eighth Streets Northeast, thirteen hundred people kill nineteen thousand hogs every single day.”

Jahren, Hope. The Story of More (p. 44). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hope Jahren’s book makes it clear that the meat industry is now much larger than most of us realize. It is a great example of the massive and out-of-control industrial growth of our modern society. And it is a really interesting book in other surprising ways. Check it out. There is a link at the bottom of this page.

Columbines and Creek in Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Columbines and Creek in Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado

Sonia Shah, in her Nation article, says that raising so many animals so close together in unsanitary conditions aids the emergence of deadly viruses. She says that the factory farms where these animals are killed are immense breeding grounds for all sorts of viruses. Shah says that,

Vast numbers of animals “are reared in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of individuals await slaughter, packed closely together, providing microbes lush opportunities to turn into deadly pathogens. Avian influenza viruses, for example, which originate in the bodies of wild waterfowl, rampage in factory farms packed with captive chickens, mutating and becoming more virulent, a process so reliable it can be replicated in the laboratory. One strain called H5N1, which can infect humans, kills more than half of those infected. Containing another strain, which reached North America in 2014, required the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry.”

And then there are the millions of tons of excreta produced by all of these livestock factory farms. Here is Sonia Shah’s description of this.

“The avalanche of excreta produced by our livestock introduces yet more opportunities for animal microbes to spill over into human populations.

Because animal waste is far more voluminous than croplands can possibly absorb as fertilizer, it is collected in many places in unlined cesspools called manure lagoons.

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli, which lives harmlessly inside the guts of over half of all cattle on American feedlots, lurks in that waste. In humans, it causes bloody diarrhea and fever and can lead to acute kidney failure.

Because cattle waste so frequently sloshes into our food and water, 90,000 Americans are infected every year.

Here is another answer to where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

And there is another kind of much smaller market for killing and eating animals. These are the wet markets that can be found all over the world, mostly in China and the Far East and Africa. In these markets thousands of wild and domestic animals are kept in small wire cages that are stacked on top of each other. Everything from the upper crates– blood, pus, urine, feces, bacteria, virus –drips down into the lower cages and spreads all kinds of microbes. These wet markets are hotbeds of cross infection and transfers of diseases from animals to humans. And, in fact, the Corona virus that is killing humans right now came from just such a wet market in Wuhan, China.

Here is a good article from Business Insider on asian wet markets and how they spread diseases from animals to humans. Asian wet markets

Lone aspen near Aspen, Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Lone aspen near Aspen, Colorado

This process of transforming animal microbes into human pathogens is not really new. It began when humans ceased to be hunter-gatherers in the Neolithic revolution. This was when we first began to destroy wild animal habitat by clearing land for crops. And this was also when we began to domesticate wild animals and use them for food. The “deadly gifts” we received from our “animal friends,” as Jared Diamond put it, include measles and tuberculosis from cows; pertussis from pigs; and influenza from ducks. This is even deeper background about where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

All of this early habitat destruction by humans was continued with the colonial expansion into wild lands by the early Europeans. For example, British colonists in Bangladesh destroyed the Sundarbans wetlands to build rice farms. And this exposed humans to water-borne bacteria in the wetlands’ stagnant waters.

The pandemics those colonial-era intrusions created haunt us to this day. The macaque’s lentivirus evolved into HIV. The water-borne bacteria of the Sundarbans, now known as cholera, has caused seven pandemics so far, the latest churning just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida in Haiti.

This is still another answer to where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

Foggy creek in Glacier National Park, Montana.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Foggy creek in Glacier National Park, Montana

Fortunately there are things we can do to help prevent all this from happening.

For one thing, we can protect wildlife habitat and keep wild animals as far from humans as possible. Unfortunately we are not accomplishing this very well right now. The world wide loss of habitat increases every year.

We can also conduct surveillance in places where animal microbes are likely to change into human pathogens. For the past ten years USAID’s Predict Program did just that. The Predict Program scientists have pinpointed and helped control more than 900 novel viruses around the world that emerged in that ten years, including new strains of SARS-like coronaviruses.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration decided to end the Predict program last October. Officials reportedly felt “uncomfortable funding cutting-edge science.” And the Trump administration has been doing its best for the last three years to make the pandemic situation as bad as possible.  The administration clearly is reducing our ability to pinpoint the next spillover microbe and to contain it when it starts to spread.

Columbine Falls in Yankee Boy Basin, Colorado.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Columbine Falls in Yankee Boy Basin, Colorado

And as the current corona pandemic gains momentum Trump has done just about everything wrong. He didn’t begin the Corona virus battle until far too late. He has spread all kinds of false propaganda that the virus is just the common cold and that everything is totally under control. He has not encouraged people to practice social isolation or prepare for more corona cases and deaths. And in the last few days, he has suddenly reversed his opinion, saying that he knew all along that the Corona virus was actually causing a pandemic. Such confusion is extremely unhelpful in our current situation.

Luckily many responsible, private citizens are taking things into their own hands and shutting down just as much of American social activity as possible. We could be doing much better, but this is something.

Good luck to all of us in this difficult time.

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More reading on Where did the Corona pandemic really come from?

Sonia Shaw, “PANDEMIC: Tracking Contagion from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016).

Sonia Shaw, “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.”

David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

The eleven threats of climate change

Some good basic information about Covid-19. I liked this article.

How does climate change affect disease

Hope Jahren, The Story of More

Chinese wet markets

Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona.  Where did the Corona pandemic really come  from?  One answer is that we didn't leave enough of the world natural, like this place is.
Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona
The Red Wall in Grand Canyon.
The Red Wall in Grand Canyon
Bass Light on the Atlantic Coast in Maine
Bass Light on the Atlantic Coast in Maine
Old man of the Mountains in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
Old man of the Mountains in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

Summary: Where did the Corona pandemic really come from? Basically the pandemic comes from how humans have mistreated the earth for many thousands of years. Habitat destruction is the main problem. This results in squeezing wildlife into human habitations where microbes in wildlife make their way into human bodies.

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