Biosecurity – China
At an emergency meeting in Beijing held in late February, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke about the need to contain the coronavirus and set up a system to prevent similar epidemics in the future. A national system to control biosecurity risks must be put in place to protect the people’s health, Xi said, because lab safety is a national security issue. Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive: Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus. There is only one. such lab: it is located in the Chinese city of Wuhan. China has a history of similar incidents. Even the deadly SARS virus has escaped — twice — from a Beijing lab. Both man-made epidemics were quickly contained, but neither would have happened at all if proper safety precautions had been taken.
And then there is this little-known fact: Some Chinese researchers are in the habit of selling their laboratory animals to street vendors after they have finished experimenting on them.
Instead of properly disposing of infected animals by cremation, as the law requires, they sell them on the side to make a little extra cash. Or, in some cases, a lot of extra cash. One Beijing researcher, now in jail, made a million dollars selling his monkeys and rats on the live animal market, where they eventually wound up in someone’s stomach.
Biosecurity – the West
From its reaction, all this is clearly a source of embarrassment to the Chinese Government. But before we point the finger at China for all the World’s ills and illnesses, consider the following:
Viral evolution works much the same as human evolution, though faster. The replication of viral genes is imperfect — mistakes happen, and these mistakes (mutations) lead to genetic variation between a virus and its progeny. Unlike humans, viruses have no genetic “proofreading” system to catch many of these mistakes. As a result, mutations occur much more frequently. Occasionally, a mutation gives a virus enhanced ability to infect new host cells and reproduce more quickly than its counterparts. An advantageous mutation quickly becomes common throughout a viral population. Another process, viral reassortment (which is unique to certain viruses) allows them to acquire vastly different genes in just one generation. The genomes of these viruses consist of short segments of RNA, each separate from the other. When a virus infects a cell, these genes hijack the cellular machinery of the host to replicate themselves. The replicated genes are then packaged into new viruses and released to infect others. If two or more viruses infect the same cell, the genes of all are replicated. When the new viruses are assembled, they may receive genes from all of these viruses — a new strain can emerge.
Our current model of food animal production factors heavily into viral evolution and transmission. The system — which is vastly different than it was just a century ago — provides some efficiency, but it poses grave threats to public health, including increased risk of pandemic influenza. Beginning in the 1940s, and intensifying recently, small farms were replaced by large, industrial operations that confine thousands or even millions of animals at a single site. The animals are raised in cramped quarters, in constant contact with their waste, and fed corn and soybeans in place of the forage for which their digestive systems evolved.
At any given time there are about one billion poultry and swine total alive in the U.S., and the vast majority of these animals are raised at industrial operations. Each animal is a potential host for influenza viruses. Additionally, the stresses induced by confinement and constant respiratory exposure to high concentrations of ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and other gases from concentrated waste leave animals more susceptible to viral infections. These conditions allow viruses to infect again and again, increasing the frequency of mutations and viral reassortment, the raw material for evolution.
The interaction between humans and food animals, and our resulting exposure to viruses these animals carry, is now radically different from that at any previous point in history. Earlier generations of farmers may have spent a few hours each day with dozens of animals at most. The workers at industrial operations work all day with hundreds or thousands of birds or pigs. The probability of contracting influenza viruses that have mutated to infect humans is greatly increased.
Unfortunately we don’t know enough about the biology of these viruses to make accurate predictions, but influenza is definitely the disease to keep an eye on. AIDS has killed millions but is only fluid-borne. Malaria has killed millions but is relatively restricted to equatorial regions. Flu viruses are the only known pathogen capable of infecting literally billions of people in a matter of months. 2009 saw a flu pandemic caused by the swine-origin influenza virus H1N1. Millions of people became infected and thousands died.
But H1N1 is not particularly virulent. There are other flu viruses that have emerged in recent decades such as the highly pathogenic (disease-causing) bird flu H5N1 that may have the potential to cause much greater human harm. Currently H5N1 kills approximately 60% of those it infects. That’s a mortality rate on par with some strains of Ebola. Thankfully, only a few hundred people have become infected. Should a virus like H5N1 trigger a pandemic, though, the results could be catastrophic. During a pandemic as many as 2 or 3 billion people can become infected. Unfortunately, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Both China and Indonesia have reported sporadic outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu in pigs and sporadic outbreaks of the new pandemic virus H1N1 in pigs as well. Should a pig become co-infected with both strains, a hybrid mutant could theoretically arise with human transmissibility of swine flu and the human lethality of bird flu.
The worst plague in recent history was the 1918 flu pandemic triggered by a bird flu virus that went on to kill upwards of 50 million people. The crowded, stressful, unhygienic trench warfare conditions during World War I that led to the emergence of the 1918 virus are replicated today in nearly every industrial chicken shed and egg operation. We now have billions of chickens intensively confined in factory farms, arguably the Perfect Storm environment for the emergence and spread of hypervirulent, so-called “predator-type” viruses like H5N1. The 1918 virus killed about 2.5% of the people it infected, 20 times deadlier than the seasonal flu. H5N1 is now killing 60% of infected people, 20 times deadlier than the 1918 virus. So if a virus like 1918 gained easy human transmissibility, it could make the 1918 pandemic—the deadliest plague ever—look like the regular flu.
The scenario of a super-pandemic which kills several billion people has become not only possible, but likely. The victims of Covid-19 are the canary in the coal-mine.
While it may never be possible to completely eliminate infectious diseases such as influenza, there are still steps that can be taken to mitigate the the spread of infectious disease and, hopefully, to prevent such a super-pandemic from occurring at all. Here are some:
- Intensive factory farming of chickens and pigs can be phased out and replaced with “free range” production.
- Ships’ air conditioning can be modified to meet at least the same standards found in hotels on land .
- New methods for routinely sterilizing mass transit vehicles, mass transit buildings and busy public thoroughfares can be invetigated.
- More research is needed into the details of transmission of influenza-like diseases.
Re #1: The Global Warming/Climate Change movement of the last thirty years has been a dry run. If it is politically possible to close coal-fired power stations, it must also be politically possible to close factory farms. It may mean that eggs, chicken, pork, ham and bacon will become more expensive overnight but people will cope. Governments may have to subsidize the transition to free-range farming but it will be less costly than government support for alternative energy.
Re #2: Ship heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are fundamentally different from hotel systems. There are no cooling towers, because seawater is used instead. Because of this listeria does not have the opportunity to breed as in the spray towers once found in hotels. The real problem is that a ship HVAC is a closed circuit. Fresh air is mixed with existing air being recirculated for thermal efficiency. The other issue is that many cabins share a common input circuit and exhaust. While this will vary from ship to ship, effectively everyone aboard is breathing the same air. This, of course, explains why cruise ships showed such a high rate of infection of Covid-19. The present pandemic may well spell the closure of the cruise ship industry but there is no reason why it shouldn’t start up again once the air-conditioning problem has been dealt with and the public slowly regains confidence.
Thanks to Steven Mosher re lab-animal sales: https://nypost.com/2020/02/22/dont-buy-chinas-story-the-coronavirus-may-have-leaked-from-a-lab/
Thanks too, to Fred Stein for the info on ships’ air-conditioning