By Don Corrigan
Bats and snakes are taking the blame for transmitting the coronavirus which is taking such a toll on human health and economic well-being. Experts at the Saint Louis Zoo worry that such explanations for the pandemic will cause a backlash against wildlife.
“Bats are not to blame. Snakes are not to blame. Wildlife is not to blame,” said Dr. Sharon Deem, director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine. “Humans created the avenue for a snake to be near a bat to be near a human. We humans have created the environments that allow the spillover of these pathogens.
Deem is referring to one theory that coronavirus was contracted from bats by snakes, then the snakes were purchased for consumption by humans in a market in Wuhan, China. The virus has spread from China to more than 150 nations, with the United States now having the most infections of all countries.
“We humans have created the environments that allow the spillover of these disease pathogens,” said Deem. “In fact, one of the greatest impacts on human public health, beyond emerging infectious diseases and climate change, is the loss of biodiversity.
“That in itself creates health costs to humans and other life,” said Deem. “For example, bats provide ‘ecosystem services’ from plant pollination to pest control. Bats can eat thousands of mosquitoes every night.”
Deem said wildlife species are not the bad guys and in many cases, such as with bats, they are often providing preventive health measures. They are destroying mosquitoes that transmit deadly diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, dengue and yellow fever.
Deem’s Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine obviously takes a holistic approach to wildlife conservation and preserving sustainable ecosystems to ensure healthy animals and healthy people.
The Institute focuses on conservation medicine to address the growing disease challenges that threaten animals and humans. In recent years, the term “One Health” has been coined and has similar objectives to conservation medicine. It aims to merge animal and human health to benefit both. Human-related environmental change threatens both animal and human health as well as all ecosystems on Earth.
“Think about the changing human footprint and our relationship with non-human animals – it’s clear that infectious disease spillovers are going to increase,” said Deem. “We have 7,600,000,000 humans alive today with increased connections with animals.
“Whether these interactions are taking place at the dinner table – as with the ‘wet markets’ and our current COVID-19 pandemic – or are created as we move farther and farther into previously untouched wildernesses, the sharing of infectious zoonotic diseases will increase. Period,” Deem declared.
“The Institute has a number of specific projects underway focused on tortoises, turtles, camels, lemurs and more.
“Another project in the Amazon rainforest tests for arboviruses in sloths and non-human primates. Many of these arboviruses may be shared between animals and humans.
“The study of the incidence of these pathogens in wildlife and humans can help determine how best to conserve species, protect the Amazon forest and advance human public health.
“Arboviruses by definition are those viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, or other arthropods,” explained Deem. “Zika and West Nile virus are two good examples of emerging infectious diseases that are caused by an arbovirus—a virus that needs a vector – mosquitoes in both these cases – to be transmitted to humans.
“The current pandemic of COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS CoV2. This virus is transmitted by direct contact and thus is not an arbovirus since it does not need a mosquito or other vector to transmit it,” said Deem. This virus is the result of mixing wild and domestic animals in one market, often under unhygienic conditions, so they may then be purchased by people to eat them. This can allow a virus to spill over from non-human animals to humans.”
So, how can the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine help America to become more proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to future pandemics?
“The Institute for Conservation Medicine is tackling some of the complex conservation and public health challenges we face today,” said Deem. “Emerging infectious disease is one of these challenges.
“We are bringing together veterinary and human medical professionals, sociologists, ecologists, economists, politicians to prevent the next crisis before it starts,” said Deem. “Prevention is cheaper than treatment. COVID-19 is reminding us of this right now.
“What if we had stopped the trade in wildlife species and stopped the wet market practices that is ultimately the cause of the current pandemic?” asked Deem. “Would we have prevented the current pandemic crisis? I think so. Proactive action always is better than reactive action.”