Future Preventative Measures for Coronavirus Related Infectious Diseases

- By Nilang Gor, Founder of Cultivate Empathy for All

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The U.S. now has the world's most COVID-19 cases. It is very important to follow social distancing and sanitary guidelines as we move through this tough time. We feel deep gratitude to our community members who continue to provide crucial services to us during the pandemic. Please consider supporting one another and donating to non-profit organizations involved in helping vulnerable human and non-human animals. While it is extremely important to address the urgent issues in fighting COVID-19, we are now also compelled to take preventative measures in order to avoid future outbreaks.

Coronaviruses have actually existed for thousands of years [1]. There are several Coronaviruses that circulate among animals and birds[2,3]. These viruses can evolve within animals to develop a strain that infects human beings (zoonotic Coronaviruses) [4]. In recent years, animal product industries and operations have substantially increased for food, fashion, pets and other forms of consumer goods. Through the production and sale of these items, many of us are put in close contact with wild and domesticated animals which significantly increases our chance of contracting zoonotic Coronaviruses. Just in the 21st century, Coronaviruses have caused three major outbreaks [2].
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by SARS-CoV, 2002
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) caused by (MERS-CoV), 2012
  • Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2, 2019-20
Since the SARS outbreak in 2002, various groups of scientists were able to link the emergence of SARS-CoV to civet (intermediate host) and horseshoe bat (origin)[5]. This outbreak ended up costing 750 lives across 37 countries. On the other hand, MERS-CoV originated from bats and then transmitted to camels[6]. The MERS-CoV spilled-over in to humans through close contact with camels in the Middle East[6]. The MERS outbreak resulted in more than 800 deaths. The SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the current pandemic of COVID-19. This Coronavirus is expected to have originated in horseshoe bats and then transmitted to pangolins[7,8]. The pandemic has already taken more than 68,000 lives and infected around one million people as of April 5th, 2020. The growing social and economic impact of this pandemic is massive and beyond our estimation.

All three strains of Coronaviruses similarly infect an intermediate host before spilling-over into the human population. This intermediate host can be a wild or domesticated animals[5,6]. As a result, there are two main factors influencing the future outbreaks of Coronaviruses:
  • Global import-export trading of wildlife and their products.
  • Human operation of wild and domesticated animal facilities.
When we look at global import-export trading, it turns out that the U.S. is the global leader in wildlife consumption[9]. Mammal products are the most imported wildlife shipment and 33% of all shipments include live animals[10]. Pangolin, associated with the pandemic of COVID-19, is believed to be the world's most trafficked mammal[11]. In the U.S., pangolin products are sold openly[12]. There were 26,696 pangolin products imported to the U.S. between 2004 and 2013[12]. Our consumption of wildlife products promotes the destruction of biodiversity and puts human beings in close contact with wildlife, risking the spill-over of zoonotic pathogens. As a result, decreasing the global import-export trade of wildlife and wildlife products will play a significant role in preventing future Coronavirus related outbreak.

Figure 1: U.S. imported wildlife shipment between 2000 to 2013 [10].

Figure 2: Intra and interspecies transmission of human Coronaviruses[26]. Note: SARS CoV-2 (COVID-19) is not included as the study was published in 2016.
Now let's switch gears to talk about the human operation of wild and domesticated animal facilities. For years, China's wet markets have been under extreme scrutiny world-wide. The wet market is a place where live animals are kept and slaughtered upon customer request. China's wet market clusters various wild and domesticated animals together. It is a perfect situation for cross transmission of Coronaviruses among various animal species[23,24,25]. This cross transmission allows genetic recombination between Coronavirus strains, developing a novel virus that could spillover in to the human population[25]. Both SARS CoV and SARS CoV-2 emergence is associated with wet market operations[22,25]. Coronaviruses are also no stranger to domestic livestock and poultry[2,17]. Currently, it is not required to report Coronavirus infections in domesticated animals due to the economic burden on livestock producers and the fact that Coronaviruses from domesticated animals have not yet jumped in to the human population[17]. But SARS-like Coronaviruses (SARS-CoV & SARS-CoV-2) use the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) cell receptor that is present in a wide range of domesticated animals[19,21]. This can lead to transmission of SARS like Coronaviruses from human to domesticated animals who are already carrying non-zoonotic Coronaviruses[18,20]. The genetic recombination of two Coronavirus strains in domesticated animals could result in the emergence of a novel virus[20]. It took only two minor mutations in civet SARS-CoV for the virus to bind with human ACE2 receptors causing the SARS outbreak in 2003[19]. How far do government agencies think we could go on risking the global population? Our scientific understanding of viruses and its evolution impels us to consider the risk of animal agriculture[18,20]. As a result, human exposure to wild and domesticated animals will be the influencing factor for future Coronavirus-related outbreaks.

Figure 3: Viral recombination of two strains for producing a novel virus [27].
The biggest solution starts with comprehending the fact that our well-being is interdependent on non-human animals, the environment and vegetation within a highly interconnected ecosystem. As a result, we need to reduce our consumption of wild and domesticated animals in order to minimize human exposure. We need a plant-based economy that promotes biodiversity.

It is extremely important to first of all demand a global ban of wet markets through contacting your legislators, international agencies and signing petitions. Wildlife consumption risks human health as well as biodiversity. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Social Compassion in Legislation (SCIL) and many other organizations are working to protect wildlife. HSUS and other groups are campaigning to protect pangolins under the U.S. Endangered Species Act [16]. SCIL co-sponsored SB 313 (Circus Cruelty Prevention Act) and was recently signed into a law. It bans the use of wild animals in circuses. You can support these organizations and their campaigns through sending letters to legislators, signing petitions and donating.

The consumption of domesticated animals does not only impose threats of infectious diseases. It is associated with the top chronic illnesses, like cancer and heart disease. Animal agriculture is also linked with the destruction of the environment and natural resources, like land and water. As a result, Agriculture Fairness Alliance (AFA), Physician Committee for Responsible Medicines (PCRM) and many other organizations are working towards bringing sustainable shifts in the U.S. farming industry and our collective diet. AFA is sponsoring a congressional legislation to help animal farmers transition to growing crops, rather than livestock, for human consumption. You can support AFA through becoming a monthly donor and 100% of your donation will go to lobbying towards these types of initiatives.

You may also ask your City Council to adopt "Vision2025 for Sustainable Food Policies". This program demands local City Councils to direct 50% of their annual food budget to purchasing plant-based options, along with forming an advisory body for proposing sustainable food policies. Vision2025 is a no-cost program that solely depends on volunteers who are motivated to educate their City Councils and bringing much needed change for all.  

Nilang Gor
Nilang Gor, is a Molecular Biologist and the founder of Cultivate Empathy for All. Nilang is global citizen and active member of the community with his constant participation through activism/volunteering for homelessness, animal rights and environment. Nilang believes our ecosystem is built on the principle on interdependence and exponential growth in globalization is making our well-being more interdependent than ever before. As a result, he believes cultivating empathy for all is the key factor in creating systemic harmony on our planet earth.

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