Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 27, 2020

Destruction of animal habitats may contribute to the next outbreak

By TANVI NARVEKAR | April 22, 2020

Before I start my column, I hope everyone is staying safe during this pandemic. It definitely has not been easy to stay at home and not be able to hang out or go places, but of course, it is necessary for the world and for the well-being of everyone.

I have been trying to minimize the amount of news that I read, as the constant updates can get quite sad and tiring. But, the other day, I stumbled across an interesting article from Vox about how our past environmental practices have shaped today’s pandemic. 

This discussion might seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, it is important to address so that we can reduce the impacts of the next epidemic. 

One factor that affects how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spreads is the accessibility to the microbes that cause disease. Instead of simply blaming animals for transmitting the disease to humans, it’s important to understand that microbes function differently in different bodies. In the Vox interview, author and science journalist Sonia Shah discussed how these microbes have been present for some time, but environmental destruction makes them more dangerous. The increase in the potency of these viruses can lead to a pandemic. 

Shah also mentioned the importance of understanding the connections between animals, humans and the environment. We all share the planet, so any microbe that affects animals will affect us as well. It also goes the other way: We can pass on microbes and diseases to animals, like the tiger that tested positive for COVID-19 at the Bronx Zoo.

Another CBS article suggests that the way that we have impacted the environment has caused animals to suffer in terms of immunity. As we degrade the environment, we also make animals more prone to infections. Without a proper environment, animals’ diet and living conditions suffer, which in turn compromises the animals’ immune systems. 

As animals’ immune systems weaken, microbes are better able to thrive, reproduce and mutate. Eventually, an animal-human interaction will occur and the microbe spreads. 

As habitats are destroyed and humans encroach on previously undisturbed territory, animal-human interactions are more likely. Interactions can occur through indirect means like contact with feces, or through direct means such as human consumption of an animal. The microbes’ effect on a human host may be deadlier than its effect on an animal. 

In addition, the destruction of environments can lead to the disruption of biodiversity, which can cause an imbalance in vector populations. 

In an interview with CBS News, Jim Robbins, a science and environmental reporter for the New York Times, discusses how a disruption in biodiversity can lead to increased host activity. He uses the example of Lyme disease with the vector of the white mouse. As the number of predators of the white mouse, like foxes and badgers, decrease, the number of white mice will increase. This means that there can be greater vector transmission of Lyme disease.

This is related to one of my past columns, where I described how climate change affects our health. I previously wrote how host transmission can increase with depleting environmental conditions. 

To be clear, this discussion on how animals and humans are connected does not in any way justify xenophobia or condemnation of a certain cuisine. A particular meal will not cause a world-wide pandemic by itself. 

There are many different ways that animal-human interactions can occur. Especially with increasing levels of deforestation that push animals into more heavily populated areas, we are more bound to interact with animals. It’s important to take this into the future and focus on prevention of both environmental damage and public health crises so that we can focus less on reparations later. 

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