I have been working from home since the lockdown. So I wake up, tend my milk kefir (and drink a glass of it), walk my dog briefly in the countryside behind my house where she tries to chase some ducks, and where I make a wide circle around other humans, I feed the chicken (the shed also has some bats living in the roof) and prepare breakfast with some bacon and sourdough bread.
Chicken fleeing human and dog, afraid to catch a bug.
While eating breakfast and scanning the news, I am distracted by articles from people who see their existing opinions confirmed. Biologists talk about the danger of zoonosis (illnesses jumping from animals to humans): the cause of this zoonosis is an encroachment on natural habitats, forcing animals to live amongst people. For others, the wet markets are the cause of the disaster: wild animals should not be hunted or mixed with farm animals. Meat-eating and industrial meat production are blamed, but also globalization, global trade and tourism. Others blame small-scale, unregulated mixed farming for mixing people with animals too closely. Anti-globalists, Marxists, nationalists and racists have a field day: Coronavirus confirms all opinions. And indeed, all opinions have seeds of truth. A very partial truth.
Me as an ecosystem
As I eat my breakfast and distract myself from having to start work, I think about how I myself am an ecosystem of lifeforms. The symbionts and parasites living in my gut, in, and on my body make me what I am. So far this morning, I interacted with my gut, dog, chicken, kefir, cow, sourdough bread, a bat, and pigs. Each one of them are diverse ecosystems on their own, but also part of the ecosystem that I am.
The ecosystem in my body is in a dynamic balance, and therefore it can fight off intruders quite well. Because there are so many good bacteria, the bad ones have little chance.
Viruses evolve everywhere, but humans transmit them to me.
The bacteria in my gut and their viruses can exchange genetic material, making harmless bacteria suddenly lethal. I remember my professor in Animal Health, years ago, referred to E. coli as “mostly harmless”. This was before nasty, virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains evolved. Evolution can also make bugs more useful, better for us, better at fighting off lethal bugs, better cheese, bread, cider.
I cough in my hand, my dog licks me, and afterwards, I touch my face again. This is what people do. I was more afraid of the humans during the walk than of my dog. I was not afraid of the bat in the shed. While Covid-19 might have started as a zoonosis, now transmission happens mostly from human to human.
If you get sick from a transmittable disease, you probably caught it from a human. Normally transmission is easier the more similar animals are. The line between zoonosis and transmittable disease is in some way just a classification. Where do you draw the boundary? When tuberculosis evolves within our human community to a multi-resistant strain, savaging the third world, we don’t give it a new name.
When I look at some past zoonosis—Swine flu (pig), SARS (bat), bird flu (chicken, duck), smallpox (cow)—my dog (rabies) and I were having a dangerous adventure this morning. It was Mad Max just to prepare breakfast.
When I walk in the countryside, there is fresh slurry on the fields, from the pig farm nearby. It creates a primeval soup where all kinds of microbes can grow, interact, and exchange genetic material.
However, I felt safe. I was safe. I am in a shell formed by my own biome, surrounded by protecting shells of increasingly bigger, biodiverse shells.
Humans co-evolve with zoonotic parasites. Some of these parasites, such as liver fluke, have a life cycle that is just too cool, as long as you are not part of it yourself. Snails in the water contaminate vegetables we eat. In our gut, the parasite moves to the liver and eats it, and the eggs go back to the gut, to the water, to the snail. Toxoplasmosis is a cat-mouse-human story, rumoured to lead to risk-seeking behaviour in mice so cats can catch them—but also in humans, with perhaps half of the global population of humans infected.
Most zoonoses are mostly dealt with by our standards of ecosystem management. Wash hands, slaughter with clean material, cook meat, cook veggies, spray against mosquitoes, don’t swim where there are snails. Most of the time, people don’t die. Often, people do die, and then we mourn but have no choice to keep going.
Our health systems are co-evolving with the bacteria and germs. As long as evolution is gradual, we don’t even notice. But sudden jumps take our health systems by surprise.
Burning the bat cave.
Attention goes to where the news is. Today, we focus on this new viral zoonosis. This one comes from faraway dark places, where unknown wild animals and strange customs combine to frightening and foreign diseases. Humans (them, not us) should stop encroaching on “nature’ and abandon their evil ways. Industrial agriculture, with its massive factories full of monogenetic pigs, fowl, is spawning new and terrible disease. If close contact between pigs and humans gives us the flu, we would be expected to respond by building more hygienic, impersonal meat factories, not family farms with farmers in harmony with cute and cuddly animals. Health and safety regulations are drafted.
Likewise, if wild animals give us deadly viruses, the expected response is to exterminate them. If we don’t, if we simply put them away in a nature reserve, the danger would always be lurking, dark and ominous. Similarly, before long, we’ll start burning bats in their caves.
These responses are, of course, based on some truth. The more animals live together, the more chance there is that a virus develops. The more humans live in close quarters, the faster a virus will mutate. And when you mix animals and humans, there are more chances something new will jump.
We live in a world with bugs and bats and pigs and dogs and humans. And all of them bring their own risks and benefits. Benefits for the whole of the system risks for everyone else too. And all of them also bring a seed of something that can destroy humanity.
And yet, to have this worldview requires looking at nature as foreign, harmful and dangerous, something we should control and fix. But there’s another way of looking at the same issue, and that is as nature being part of us. And that kind of perspective starts with our own microbiome.
Lines of defence: Our own biome is the first step, but not enough
A new pandemic, out of the blue, transmitted from an animal, is not something you care about as an individual. If you look at the important ones: Covid-19, Spanish Flu, HIV-AIDS, Smallpox, The Plague… The chance that they happen is perhaps one in a billion. Nothing for my dog, nor me, to worry about for ourselves. But humanity should worry. The chances are slim that the bug jumps from this bat to me, here, now. A Chance in a billion, but we humans are billions, and there are a lot of animals, so regularly a jump of a virus from an animal to a human is bound to happen. And once adapted to humans, transmission from human to human is easy. Yes, there is a low probability, but a pandemic is can be fatal. It is not a relevant problem to me as an individual, but it is an existential risk for humans as a species. So we need lines of defence, as individuals, and as a community.
Our first line of defence is our biome. Taking care of a diverse ecosystem in my body and around it. This helps us resist disease and build a tolerance. So we should not put nature in reserves and make our homes and the barn totally aseptic. Because, if there is no diversity, and our guards are down, the bad bug will come in roaring like a dragon. Nothing can stop it.
But there are still risks. We have to know how to keep the sty, stable, and home relatively clean, and we learn to wash our hands. So we start managing our environment, mindful of keeping the biodiversity while limiting the pathogens.
Homo sapiens is the knowing one. Knowledge is our strength to work with the environment. Stupid approaches are simple: one bug, one drug. Ecosystem gardening can only happen when we know a lot about the bug, a lot about the environment, and a lot about ourselves. Driven by knowledge, we can change our behaviour as a social group. We learn that washing your hands after going into the garden or the farm prevents diarrhea, not only for ourselves but also for our friends and family. We learn that eating enough fibre leads to more stable gut flora. We learn that we can bring down the probabilities, but that we never have iron-clad security.
So, the human approach for defence is based on the knowledge leveraged by the different interwoven ways humans interact with each other and the environment.
Community action is a second line of defence. The knowledge that we need to stay at home, wash our hands and to keep the social distance is useless if we don’t apply this as a community. We act as a community and wash our hands even if we are not old and frail because communities take care of all their members.
People keep an eye out and step in when they see newspapers are not picked up, garbage forgotten. Scouts volunteer to do the shopping for the elderly, we organize the bear hunt for the children. The village doctor/health center gives primary care and refers people to hospitals when needed. Community, experience, research and education is the basis of how we can respond to the crisis.
Collective action at scale
But things can still go wrong. Sometimes a virus still jumps, or something happens that we previously knew little about—a cholera epidemic, for instance. And our community institutions are totally unprepared. Elderly care homes are unable to keep seniors from getting infected, we don’t have the infrastructure to prevent cholera from spreading in the water system.
As a last line of defence, we need an organized network from the local level to the global level for observation of trends, rapid reaction, research, local, national, and global response. Like a Tsunami warning system, this network must be kept on its toes, even if nothing happens in a hundred years. This is difficult. In the East, the response to SARS led to preparedness for COVID19. In the West, the preparations for SARS were forgotten and abandoned. Do these lines of defence work perfectly? No. But as we did not go extinct yet, they did the job.
Luckily, globally, the WHO exists, but it should be expanded, given a bigger mandate, and be more accountable. In so many countries all the necessary institutions are in place—they just don’t have the support and safeguards needed to react in time to a pandemic. In some countries, they were curtailed, and a lot of countries cannot afford them. In the pandemic, we help each other, as an individual, and as a country, because we cannot afford to have one going down and affect the others. But also, because we share our humanity. To fight the pandemic there needs to be sufficient trust that we will not be left behind if we do what is right for the global cause, but hurts us today.
The pandemic is a good example of how society works: humans are individuals and have agency, but they are also part of a community. For every level of risk in this pandemic personal agency is important, but as an outbreak leads to a pandemic and has increasingly more impact, we need to be organized with common purpose at every level of community: the neighbourhood, transparent global research networks, and governments that can promote and impose legitimate collective action, on health care, economy, social distancing and safety nets.
For those who can’t bother with the messy politics of collective action, escape is the solution: some plan on moving to Mars. It might be a good idea for some, but not for me.
I like to walk my dog in the morning, and I take the risk.