In November, doctors in China began sounding the alarm about a new viral respiratory disease that was slowly spreading across the nation.
The disease – which was unknown to medical science at the time- caused victims to develop flu-like symptoms and in the worst cases pneumonia. And despite widespread containment measures, it spread to five continents and infected thousands.
While you may think I am talking about the ongoing covid-19 crisis, you’d be mistaken. I am talking about SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which swept through China and much of the world between 2002 and 2004, resulting in 774 deaths.
The similarities between SARS and covid-19 are vast. Both originated in China, both attack the lungs and can cause pneumonia, and both have proven incredibly adept at transcending borders and continents.
But while the similarities between SARS and covid-19 are obvious, you may not know that there is, in fact, a common theme between SARS, covid-19, Anthrax, Bird flu, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Brucellosis, Bubonic plague, Chlamydiosis, Ebola, Dengue fever, Diphtheria, HIV, Influenza type A, Lass fever, the common cold, Leprosy, MERS, Measles, Smallpox, Swine flu, Rabies and Tuberculosis. They all originated in animals.
From bats to monkeys, from rats to cows, humans have been catching diseases from animals for hundreds of years. Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago. Whilst others, like Zika and West Nile virus, which emerged in Africa via monkeys and birds, have mutated and established themselves elsewhere – in 2018, the US reported a record number of West Nile virus cases.
Sometimes the disease settles within the human population and becomes a part of everyday life. And other times it erupts and infects and kills thousands in a set amount of time, such as the Spanish Flu and Black death which is estimated to have killed a combined total of 300 million people.
Research suggests that outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, such as covid-19, MERS, SARS and Ebola, are on the rise. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 75% of emerging disease originate in animals and in 2008 a study headed by Katie Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity, found that 60% of the 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 came from animals.
Filthy factory farms, abattoirs, wet markets and urbanisation can partly explain the spike in animal-to-human diseases. With the demand for meat and housing continuing to rise at an unprecedented rate, the boundaries between humans and animals are breaking down and we are venturing into largely undisturbed places and leaving ourselves open to novel viruses.
If we focus on covid-19 for a moment. The wet market in Wuhan, where the Chinese government believe the current covid-19 pandemic started, was known to sell numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, crocodiles, salamanders, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles. With so many animals – both dead and alive – mixing with humans in hot and unsanitary conditions, it’s little surprise that a new virus was able to move between species. The environment was perfect for pathogens to spread!
With millions of people around the world stuck inside under quarantine, there has been plenty of time to think about our society and the changes we’d like to see made. A lot of the discussion has focused on economics and culture – wanting to visit relatives more frequently, thinking about the needs of others first and supporting our vital health services. However, one thing that we need to add to the conversation if we want to avoid another covid-19-esque outbreak, is greater respect for animals, the environment and our own mortality. We need to remember that if we create conditions that are unnatural, then nature will fight back.