Coronavirus Covid-19: a master science class

The authors of this text are scientists from different public European and Asian universities and research centers studying the crucial links between the environment and human health and wellbeing within the framework of marine ecosystems.

Coronavirus pandemic is a painful experience, but it also provides us with an excellent opportunity to reflect. To start the necessary conversations and reflections, among the main lessons, we would like to highlight three:

1. “The health of this living Planet is also our health”

According to current scientific thinking summarized by David Cyranoski in the scientific journal Nature, the transmission of the coronavirus to people may have started (not conclusively proven yet)  from a protected and illegally sold mammal called the pangolin. It is an animal that instead of living in its natural environment (forests, scrubs, etc.), can end up in some Asian markets to be used in an unsustainable diet and in unproven traditional medical uses. The pangolin may have also been the intermediate host, infected by bats involved in previous SARS epidemics in 2005 and 2012.

The problem is that animals that should be living in the wild, are taken away from their habitats and used for human consumption and other purposes. It is of great concern that, especially during the last centuries, humans have over-exploited nature by destroying habitats and consuming exotic fauna and other resources, ultimately risking the health of both the environment and of humans.

Unfortunately, this unsustainable use of nature continues, which will have very dramatic consequences for the humanity in a near future. Furthermore, it’s very likely according to Paul Shapiro that new viruses in the future may have their origin not only in wild animals but also in farmed animals such as pigs and chicken, as it happened with the swine flu (Swine-Origin Influenza Virus) in 2009. The conditions in which we farm animals around the world, in industrial facilities that raise large numbers of animals in intensive confinement, can facilitate the spread of dangerous pathogens such as virus.

Climate change is also contributing to the geographic expansion of species of tropical origin that, in some cases are associated with new diseases to humans.

The health of the environment is no different from the health of people: they are two sides of the same coin. The degradation of any natural environment whether in Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa or America, is relevant for all of us: we all live under the same roof and swim in the same waters. Integrated and global understanding and management of both environmental and human health must be adopted.

It is time to understand that “the health of this living Planet is also our health”. Once more, nature provides us with a lesson, this time from the coronavirus pandemic, that we need to learn from now.

2. “Coronavirus is what happens when you ignore science”

This sentence, from Farhad Manjoo, a columnist for The New York Times, is vital to understand this tragedy. Furthermore, “the solution can only come from a combination of science, policy and citizen action and acceptance”.

Scientists have often failed to convince politicians and policy makers about the dangers humans and environment are both facing. In 2007, Dr. Cheung’s research team [1] suggested that SARS and other virus of the SARS-CoV family could return if conditions were right for the introduction, mutation, amplification, and transmission of these dangerous viruses. These predictions were correct, and the new Covid-19 emerged.

Science is instrumental in developing solutions (such as medicines and vaccines), but also through modeling and managing the crisis. Many countries in the world are implementing drastic policies aiming at “flattening the curve”. Community isolation and individual social/physical distancing based on scientific models are now playing key roles in slowing the coronavirus spread so that fewer people need to seek treatment at a given time, keeping the pandemic hopefully more manageable for medical providers and other responders.

However, addressing a problem like the coronavirus pandemic requires scientifically-based policies as well as citizen acceptance: we need to truly think globally and act locally. Today, during the covid19 crisis, travel is limited, shopping for only essential goods is allowed, and the global economy is slowing down. Most citizens fearing for their own health are increasingly accepting these new constraints. It seems that only in the face of an imminent catastrophe, science can be heard.

Ironically, these changes are having positive effects on the environment as we decrease our footprint on the planet. For example, with decreased economic activity, air pollution levels have markedly decreased globally. This crisis is showing that humans have the potential to drive positive changes. These times of crisis are also an opportunity for solidarity and social justice. Strong policies are needed, but need to be rooted into local realities. Slowing down the spread of the virus has important economic costs, especially for the most vulnerable and poor people, for whom protection from the economic and political powers is needed.

However, many other issues are now threatening the health of the citizens as well as the planet’s health, and despite the solid scientific advances, the evidence is not taken seriously to lead to real action. Indeed, there seems to be an increase in the voices of some politicians and others around the world who deny that climate change is a real problem; others think that smoking or drinking alcohol are not problematic or that condoms are not effective against AIDS; and some think that the pollution of water and air in cities has just a tiny impact; while others want to decrease or eliminate existing regulations that are needed to protect the environment and human’s health (or are afraid of promoting new ones). And they seem to have convinced a lot of people. Other attitudes that block positive actions include feelings of powerlessness in the face of a global challenge; the hope that technology or medicine will fix it; or the fact that the consequences may take decades to have an impact.

More than ever we need to engage better around the science and scientific evidence with citizens, thus forming free critical spirits. Scientific dissemination and engagement with general public and stakeholders are still not highly valued, particularly within the academic world. The academic world is biased towards the number of scientific papers published, journal impact factors, number of citations per papers and other metrics; while the efforts made by many scientists to engage with and disseminate the messages based on credible research to the general public and the governmental administrations need to be valued more highly.

And, obviously, science needs to be prioritized and supported. After the late 2000s world financial crisis, there were significant cuts in the budgets of universities, public research centers and public health care systems around the world. The job insecurity of young scientists is an accepted way of life in many countries. In general, globally, much more is invested in military activities than in science. And when a common natural threat arrives such as the coronavirus and the climate change, we suddenly realize that we are not prepared enough.


3. “Prevention is as or more important than therapy

When it comes to health or environmental challenges, prevention is always better than treatment. For coronavirus, better interactions between science and policy could have led to the ban of consuming wild animals in East Asia (now implemented in China) and may have avoided this pandemic. In the future post covid19, the ban of wildlife trade could contribute to decrease the number of zoonotic diseases, in addition to providing more protection for the species at risk.

Similarly, the science behind climate change is strong. We have more than enough evidence to highlight the emergency of the threat and advocate for the implementation of actions toward mitigation (prevention through reduction of CO2). There is no doubt that as climate change progresses, the consequences will be dire and countless lives will be lost. Adaptation to climate change, the equivalent of a treatment in medicine, will be harder and more costly to implement. However, a short-term vision still dominates, which prioritizes the urgent treatment rather than the prevention of the disease or the environmental problem.

In conclusion, we need a visionary society that listens to and co-creates with science, to prevent rather than treat. This change in paradigm will require changes in all actors of society from the citizen to the policy makers, working together with scientists for the greater good. The coronavirus crisis is showing us that working together is possible when the threat is direct and immediate. Let’s hope that it will open the way to drive real collaborative actions for other threats such as climate change with more indirect or distant impacts. After all, the preservation of the health of our planet is the best prevention of human health and wellbeing.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any institution, university or research center where authors work.

The Authors

Notes

[1] Cheung, V.C.C, Lau, S.K.P, Woo, P.C.Y and Kwok Yung Yuen. 2007. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. Clinical Microbilogy Reviews  20(4):660–694

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