Many scientists believe that the outbreak of the pandemic is related to the way human species coexists with nature. And it has always been this way, since we are aware of, and except for those pandemics caused by climatic changes which occurred after great volcanic eruptions ,such as those that occurred in ancient Egypt, humans have tried to adapt nature for their own benefit, instead of adapting to her, with catastrophic results. The different bubonic plagues of the year 542 (Plague of Justinian) and that of 1347 to 1353 are a good example. Also those that plagued the Roman Empire, the Antonine plague (165-180) and the most devastating, the Cyprian of the years. 249 to 262, leaving the empire at the mercy of the barbarian invasions.
Europe had been attacked, and therefore the rest of the world at the time, by different outbreaks of the same plague during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. influenza appeared at the end of the 19th century also known as the Spanish Flu and it was caused by a virus.
Until the end of 1892, when Dmitri Ivanovski described what a virus was, humans did not know of its existence, although the way of contagion of some viral diseases was known. Therefore, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the virus that caused it could be studied in order to find a remedy or, in any case, a method to avoid contagion.
It is believed that the outbreak began in the Russian steppes with relatively benign effects, and that in 1916 it reached the United States, increasing its deadly capacity as it mutated. This virus remained active until 1920, already weakened by the latest mutations and with an immunized population.
Viruses have always existed – some scientists believe they are a relic of precellular life – and just as influenza A H1N1 (Spanish Flu) arose from a mutation of avian influenza, in recent years we have seen and been able to control other possible viral pandemics, almost always originated from that famous flu. There is now enough scientific evidence that points to wild animals as carriers of the current COVID-19. However, the one that most affected a group of societies and in the most devastating way, was the result of the conquest of America by the Europeans (the origin of the conquerors is of no importance, since having been Austrians, French, etc., the result would have been the same). In this case, smallpox and syphilis, transported by the conquerors, together with a radical job change (slavery), caused the disappearance of 95% of the Amerindian population, some 40 million people according to Bartolomé de las Casas.
All these pandemics, the overcrowding, the massive and intrusive interconnection of humans in the wild habitats of other animals, or the intra-species transfer of viruses, have a common denominator: they are the product of Nature being forced by the human being. Instead of adapting to it, we have tried to make Nature adapt to us. But while we could say that these pandemics are a warning of something worse to come, perhaps the famous Spanish Flu represents it much better, for having exploded at a time when humans had sufficient analytical capacity to know exactly what it was about.
In 1917 the flu had transformed and its mortality had increased a hundredfold over that of a normal flu, and it had found the best place to expand, the American military camps where the troops that were to go to Europe were being trained. The concentration of bunk beds in wooden barracks or tents had become an unbeatable source of contagion. President Woodrow Wilson asked the specialists and the chief of staff for advice, and the opinion of the latter prevailed. American troops spread the virus throughout Europe, and on their return contaminated the rest of the world. Currently no one knows how many human beings died, but brutal figures are being considered, from 25 to more than 100 million people.
Of course, it is not our intention to make historical or biological parallels between pandemics. If there are, they are not a product of our imagination but a reality. In 1918 there was a heinous war and the opinion of the military prevailed, and now that of investors and financiers. This is a small paragraph that we could treat as a small internal fight of the same human race, to decide the best strategy in their fight against nature.
Returning to the subject, we cannot forget an episode that could have ended as a pandemic, which best reflects this distortion: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow disease.
Although humanity had already suffered locally from food-related illnesses – not in vain we have learned what is edible from trial and error – this was the first inadvertently – although not accidentally – caused by humans that crossed borders perniciously and required a coordinated response. It is acquired by ingesting meat from infected animals, which were infected with feed partially made from the remains of animals of the same species. It was solved after the slaughter of two million cattle in the United Kingdom, the focus of the infection.
We are currently experiencing a new infection, also a human product and with still unknown repercussions. Anisakiasis, which is acquired by eating fish infected with Anisakis larvae or the same nematode.
Anisakis has always existed naturally, but in a small number of fish. It is a parasitic worm in fish. Eggs hatch directly in the sea. Crustaceans feed on the larvae and are also eaten by other fish or cephalopods. Inside, the larva turns into a worm and becomes a cyst in the intestine or in tissues. Its cycle is completed the moment the fish is devoured by a marine mammal, where it becomes parasitized again, feeds, grows, mates and spawns through the feces of the same mammal. This complex life cycle (without a marine mammal it could never reproduce) explains its low natural incidence; however, the intensive exploitation of the seas by humans has transformed its spread. This intensive fishing and its subsequent commercialization entails cleaning the fish after being caught, abandoning huge amounts of infected viscera directly into the sea. Those viscera become food for the rest of the fish, which become infected in a practically geometric progression.
If you travel to Brazil or Peru, or to the Far East, you will discover how the different societies are interacting in a massive and unconscious way with hundreds of species that previously lived in exclusively virgin spaces, that feed on their waste and share parasites and diseases with Humans. And, not only that, climate change is transforming or changing the habits of thousands of species of insects, worms, and small reptiles. Precisely, the flu reached the human being in this way. Having an avian origin and being asymptomatic in these animals, it causes serious disorders in humans, and causes thousands of deaths every year.
How many illnesses will have gone unnoticed? The scientific community itself estimates that many, particularly because little is yet known about viruses, hardly the most common and harmful. Except on rare occasions, the human being has been lucky. Anisakis, for example, is not difficult to eliminate and it is not lethal either but imagine what could happen if it carried a virus that altered prions, such as happens with Mad Cow disease. The result would be catastrophic.
Until now, human beings have been able to survive with varying fortunes to the various attacks of nature caused by themselves. Sometimes there have been unaffordable losses that have changed the way of living or relating, or that have even ruined apparently incombustible cultures. The plague that ravaged the Roman Empire or the Black Death itself, which eliminated two-thirds of Western societies, are good examples. And it happened in a world where a pandemic could be contained more easily, since it was not so hyperconnected.
Currently we are directly influencing and without enough knowledge about the nature of thousands of species, extinguishing many. If a small bat – or a pangolin, it is not yet known for sure – has turned humanity upside down, what could a series of tiny insects not do, directly or indirectly? How can the depletion of the ozone layer, this year extremely weakened in the northern hemisphere, affect species? Or the disproportionate and unknown increase in CO2 in the deep layers of the oceans? Or the sudden disappearance, in an extremely short period, of plant species? What effects will this disappearance have on the animal species that resided in them? How will they react and to what extent can they invade our spaces?
Viruses are essential for the survival of life on Earth, both in the generation of oxygen on the planet – due to its relationship with the cyanobacteria in the ocean, which produce the vast majority of oxygen on Earth – and for the balance of carbon in the oceans. Since we cannot eliminate them even if we had a broad knowledge of them, we would have to live in balance with them as much as possible. And for this it is essential to have a network of ecosystems without human intervention, which should contain the propagation of most viruses that can jump from other animals to humans, or that pass from immunized animals and in symbiosis with them to others who are not. And even more climate change is causing the thawing of terrestrial areas that have been in hibernation for thousands of years, and which the scientific community assumes will contain their own populations of viruses, which could re-emerge and affect life.
We do not have the magic and immediate solution, but we can urge society to invest resources in finding it, using the available scientific and health resources; In addition, we should change our model of life to adapt it to nature and greatly limit the danger of a pandemic that is much worse than what we currently suffer, and can affect humans beings, plants or other animals of the that we feed, or even the same bacteria that we need to survive. The unknowns are many and we need light on them now.
Remember that science takes time to obtain results, and to harvest it is necessary to sow.