UN warns of future viral epidemics

Published July 15, 2020, 10:27 PM

by Manila Bulletin

For months, the world has watched the emergence and spread of the new coronavirus causing ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It has now infected nearly 13 million people and killed over 560,000 around the world. And the end is not in sight.

Early this week, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said the new coronavirus is only one of hundreds found in animals and many have spread from animals to humans in the past, among them the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which spread from camels to people; SARS which jumped from bats to civet cats to humans; and Ebola which also came from bats in 1976 and again in 2014-2016.

“There are hundreds of coronaviruses, and a large number of them are found in bats,” a professor at the University of Southern California specializing in viruses said. “Based on what happened previously with SARS and MERS, scientist are very concerned that another virus will make the jump from bats to humans. It may be once in 100 years that the alchemy is right to infect humans, but when it does, it takes off like wildfire.”

The development of such an alchemy – a situation favoring the rise of a deadly coronavirus — may be taking place today in the world’s environment, the United Nations report this week said. Natural habitats are ravaged by wildlife exploitation, unsustainable farming practices, and climate change. Because of the stresses humans are placing on animal habitats, the UN report said, zoonotic diseases like Ebola, MERS, HIV-AIDS, and West Nile Virus have increasingly emerged.

“We have intensified agriculture, expanded infrastructure, and extracted resources at the expense of our wild spaces,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson said. “The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres summed up the UN report’s appeal to the world: “To prevent future outbreaks, countries need to conserve wild habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate food markets, invest in technology to identify risks, and curb the illegal trade in wildlife.”

It is an appeal that affects many countries in their use of their natural resources and private business and industry in food and agriculture. Very likely, it will go unheeded because of the costs it will inflict on ongoing operations. The UN has issued it anyway, so the world will understand the next time another virus emerges to inflict death and destruction on our world.