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An open letter on Covid-19

Updated: Apr 21

I wrote this open letter on May 2nd 2020 in response to the growing threat of this (at the time) unknown virus, Covid-19. I started researching Zoonotic diseases and the findings blew me away.

An open letter on COVID-19

by Taylor Worthington

Sat May 2nd 2020

19:20: Right now, 3.4 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded globally, 240,000 people have died.

March 23rd 2020 was the day the UK government made the call to enforce a nationwide lockdown that would shake the economy, increase Netflix’s share value and indefinitely change our day to day lives. Here, six weeks on we’re still uncertain. How, exactly will this current pandemic scar our future. How did this silent killer become so notorious? And perhaps more importantly, will we see anything like this again?

The answer worryingly, is almost certainly yes.

Whilst COVID-19 is a novel strain of Coronavirus, other mutations have surfaced during the last decade, most notably MERS and SARS. You might remember the 2003 SARS epidemic which killed around 800 people worldwide. Unfortunately that particular outbreak pales into insignificance compared to the current pandemic and it’s likely COVID-19 will pale in comparison to future diseases.

In 2019 the World Health Organisation published its list of Ten Risks to Human Health, and communicable (transmittable) diseases accounted for 50% of the risks. The WHO currently estimates that 61% of all human diseases are Zoonotic in nature, causing 2.7 million human deaths per year, pre COVID-19 .

Zoonotic diseases are a pathogen such as bacteria, virus or parasite that jump from non human animals into human animals and historically they account for some of the most famed viruses. Here’s a short list of the most recognisable:

Anthrax, Bird Flu, Bubonic Plague, BSE, Covid-19, Ebola, Dengue Fever, HIV, Influenza, Leprosy, Lyme Disease, MERS, Monkey Pox, Rabies, SARS, Smallpox, Swine Flu, Tuberculosis.

During the last 70 years around 300 new cases of Zoonoses have emerged globally, amounting to 4 or so cases per year. In most instances the disease fizzles out with minimal impact but the current crisis is a stark reminder that it could go either way. Dumb luck dictates that in the evolutionary game of Russian roulette, each of these 300 cases could have mutated into the next COVID-19 and the odds are stacked against us. We’re playing a losing game.

In the last decade, three quarters of newly discovered diseases have been Zoonotic and that number is on the rise, in part due to advances in virus detection technology, but primarily due to the conditions which we create and allow the viruses to thrive in.

As the population growth overflows from cities and beyond, protein demand grows causing the rapid expansion of global deforestation to make way for human priorities, most notably grazing livestock (or plantations in which the livestock feed is grown). Deforestation leads to habitat loss which is driving animals out of their natural environments, leading to increased contact between humans and the exotic animals in which a majority of Zoonoses originate.

You may have heard of ‘Wet Markets’ where livestock such as pigs, bats, chickens and dogs are purchased and slaughtered on the premises. Just as cross contamination of human blood can be dangerous, so too can mixing the bloods of livestock. Two separate viruses from two individual animals can meet and subsequently adapt — that’s all it takes for a relatively dormant disease to morph into a lethal threat to humanity.

As COVID-19 spread globally, the political finger pointed towards China kicking off a social blame game targeting Chinese food culture. Ongoing research demonstrates a 96% genetic link between COVID-19 and previous Coronavirus’ found within bats, offering human to bat contact as a likely candidate for the disease origin. This may seem entirely preventable from a Westernised standpoint as our culture choses not to consume these mammals, but before we point the finger let’s not forget that Swine Flu originated in pigs, Bird Flu in poultry and Mad Cows disease in cattle.

In a stark and ironic contrast an international report published in 2012 shows the USA, the UK, Australia and France as the top four contenders of emerging Zoonoses. Dumb luck lead to China baring the PR brunt of this current outbreak but statistically speaking the US and the UK are more likely candidates.

The average UK citizen consumes 80kg of meat per year and we want it cheap. So, supply must meet demand. The UK now has 800 ‘mega farms’ each housing up to 1.7 million chickens, 20k pigs or 2k cows. It’s hard to visualise these numbers but a drive in demand means that despite having valued animal welfare standards, the average supermarket chicken is afforded a 25cm x 25cm space to live out its days. Pigs, Cows and farmed fish are given similar space limitations proportional to their size.

As we ourselves practice social distancing in order to minimise the spread of disease, UK ‘mega farms’ are regimentally enforcing the opposite. In such conditions disease is not only commonplace but inevitable, and so each year over three quarters of the worlds entire antibiotic supply is fed to livestock. Antibiotics prevent bacterial infections caused by overcrowded, unhygienic living conditions, but they also increase the animals Ghrelin hormone which induces hunger, enabling faster growth.

On 31st Oct 2019 the GovUK website published its annual antibiotic resistance figures showing a 9% year on year rise in human antibiotic resistant infections with 165 new cases being reported per day. Globally the expectation is that by 2050 up to 10 million people per year could die from antibiotic resistant diseases, surpassing heart disease and cancers as the leading cause of mortality. Perhaps we should first address our own responsibility at home as being a significant part of the problem before pointing the finger because of cultural slights.

The global death toll caused by zoonosis this year will inevitably surpass 3million and its implications are far reaching. The strain to healthcare systems will be detrimental, the economic costs colossal, and the mental health fallout is yet to be seen.

Zoonoses have been around for centuries and it’s unlikely that we’ll eradicate all of them anytime soon. But we can do something. Large-scale animal agriculture is the leading contributor to every known environmental ill. Climate change, deforestation, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, the destabilisation of communities, world hunger, the decimation of natural water supplies, emerging zoonosis and antibiotic resistance. And we the consumer are driving this.

During these times of great human loss we should ask ourselves — is this necessary? Can we morally justify enabling human and non human suffering? Or can we each individually make small steps to stop these fatal issues from arising?