Coronaviruses are not a new phenomenon, nor were they discovered only recently. They were first studied in detail by scientists in the 1960s. The name comes from the ‘corona’ or ‘crown’ of sugary proteins that protrude from the envelope of the virus. Coronaviruses exist in numerous varieties and infect birds and mammals, including bats, pigs, cats, and humans.
The coronavirus responsible for the current epidemic, now labeled COVID-19, is the third to cause a major epidemic in the last two decades. The first, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), emerged in southern China in 2002. Less well known is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Each of these syndromes spread to two or three dozen other countries, both in the region of origin and further afield.
These three coronaviruses belong to the much wider category of zoonoses – diseases that jump from non-human animals to humans. There are numerous zoonoses, however, and most are caused not by coronaviruses but by other viruses or by bacteria or parasites. They were the source of the Black Death that killed between a third and a half of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague that began in 1894, the ‘Spanish’ or ‘Russian’ influenza that spread in the wake of World War One, and the so-called ‘swine flu’ of 2009. Here are a few more zoonoses and species that transmit them:
- anthrax — from sheep or cattle
- leptospirosis, rabies — from dogs
- Lyme disease — from blacklegged ticks
- malaria, dengue, chikungunya — from mosquitoes
- influenza — from ducks, geese, terns, gulls, or other waterfowl
So many species may transmit diseases to humans, including mammals, birds, and insects. Scientists seem to agree, however, that the ‘natural reservoir’ of all three of the coronaviruses that have caused the major recent epidemics (SARS, MERS, COVID-19) is bats.
Of the many species of bats, those belonging to the family known as ‘horseshoe bats’ carry coronaviruses genetically closest to COVID-19. The species of horseshoe bat extant in China is the Chinese rufous horseshoe bat, which is widely distributed and not protected by law.
The coronavirus may be transmitted from bats to humans directly or through an intermediate species. The intermediate species for SARS was the civet cat, for MERS the camel. Shen Yongyi and Xiao Lihua of South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou suggest that the intermediate species for COVID-19 is the pangolin – a long-snouted scaly anteater whose parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat skin ailments, menstrual disorders, and arthritis. They found that genetic sequences of viruses isolated from pangolins are 99% similar to COVID-19.
I myself doubt whether the pangolin was the intermediate species. Many of the people first infected with COVID-19 worked at an open-air market in Wuhan where seafood and animals captured in the wild or their parts were sold. Pangolins were not officially listed as being on sale there. That is not surprising: pangolins are a protected species and selling them is punishable with a prison term of ten years or longer. Illegal trafficking may nonetheless be widespread, but surely it is conducted clandestinely, not in full public view. Direct transmission from bats seems more likely. Bat meat was openly sold at the market (apparently it tastes rather like mutton, but has a texture similar to chicken). It is also possible that some other intermediate species was involved.
Does this mean that consumption of wild animals is dangerous enough to justify its suppression, as many argue (both in and outside China)? This conclusion seems at odds with age-old experience. After all, early humans fed themselves partly by hunting wild game for hundreds of thousands of years. Only in the last couple of centuries have most of us stopped using this source of food.
However, consumption of wild animals really is dangerous under certain conditions – namely, when the animals come from areas only recently penetrated and exploited by humans and therefore bring with them diseases to which we have not had a chance to develop immunity. A fuller explanation is given by Sonia Shah in her book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Greg Gerritt of the Rhode Island Green Party has put it this way:
There have been a number of relatively recent disease outbreaks with novel diseases, diseases that western science had not seen before, and often diseases that the communities where the outbreaks originate had not experienced before. Most of these diseases are also originally transmitted to people from tropical wild animal populations, with bats and primates implicated in some of them. What is happening is that the deforestation process works in a variety of ways, driven by factors like new road construction and the development of plantations. As roads reach new areas, they increase both the cutting of trees and the shooting of wildlife for food. Some of the wildlife is eaten locally and replaces food sources lost as deforestation progresses; some of the hunting takes advantage of the new roads and transports the food to urban markets where there is often a high demand for bushmeat. With the hunting taking place in places where very few people have hunted previously that are now available for exploitation due to new roads, or places where hunters are no longer living isolated communities, hunters are running into novel diseases in the same way that a survey of biodiversity in places that have not been explored and exploited before finds new species of geckos, salamanders, and monkeys. It you are finding new species of animals and plants, then you are running into new microorganisms: some will eventually be used to cure diseases, others will cause new diseases, and most will have little direct effect on humans.
The climate link is that the protection and maintenance of good health in the global forest, and especially tropical forests, is a critical part of our strategy to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We have to move towards zero carbon emissions rather quickly, but we also have to suck carbon dioxide out of the sky. Trees and soils are the most natural and least energy-intensive ways to do that. The best way to keep the trees and soils healthy is to protect tropical forests. We are already seeing reports of the carbon budget of the tropical forests turning negative. Deforestation is the big driver, but a decent amount of the loss of carbon in tropical forests is a cascade effect. As forest turn silent, as the animals are all hunted out even if it is prior to deforestation, the forest unravels. No animals are eating seeds that need to go through digestive systems to germinate. No animals are depositing seeds in their poop as they move from place to place. Very small pests run amok with predators gone. The ability of the forest to sequester and store carbon falls apart, requiring ever greater efforts to decarbonize and new ways to sequester carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
The conclusion is that the process that brings the new diseases to humans, deforestation, and the bushmeat trade are part and parcel of the climate crisis, and to better prevent future novel diseases, we need to do a lot better job of protecting the forests that help keep the climate intact.
That is all well and good. But this immediately raises further questions. Who is endangering the forests? For what purpose? How can the process be stopped? These questions are tackled in another article on this website, where I write:
Consider the fires now burning through the forests that serve as our planet’s lungs – in Amazonia but also in other parts of Brazil and in Indonesia. These are not ‘wildfires’: there is good reason to suppose that they are set deliberately in order to clear the land for commercial activities. In Amazonia arson opens up land for the cultivation of soybeans, for cattle ranching, in certain places for mining. In the tourist area around Pinheira in southern Brazil a state park has been set aflame with a view to residential development on what is viewed as prime real estate. In Indonesia most forest fires are set in order to clear land for palm oil plantations. So capitalists in at least five distinct non-energy fields of profit-making enterprise are involved in laying waste these precious forests.
If we are to stop the wanton destruction of our forests and the periodic epidemics associated with this process, we must stop production for profit and the endless expansion of capital.
 There are another four coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
 ‘Swine flu’ is a misleading term, inasmuch as the virus seems to be equally at home in pigs, birds, and humans. The outbreak was attributed to unsafe and crowded conditions at a pig ‘factory’ in Mexico. See my article here.
 According to Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, UK. Source here.
 David Cyranoski, Did pangolins spread the China coronavirus to people? Nature, 2/7/20.
 In African countries where the sale of bushmeat is illegal it is nonetheless available, but only through clandestine channels. Transactions occur in private homes, not on the open market.
 See also her March 27 interview on The Real News.
 In an e-mail message circulated on March 11, 2020.
Comrade Paddy Shannon of the SPGB posted a response to an earlier version of this article on the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog.
The main argument in this article seems to be that the untapped ‘natural world’ is a vast reserve of unknown diseases which capitalism risks unleashing on a defenseless global population. I don’t think this is the best argument against deforestation, but even in its own terms this view is problematical.
There are lots of exotic and isolated diseases with no cures, but they are already known about, and the reason they have no cures is only because almost hardly anybody catches them and therefore no R&D money has been put into them. Until fairly recently, Ebola was one of these. The degree to which these (capitalist) priorities would be changed in socialism is at best moot. It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of effort spent versus benefits gained.
Historically most new diseases have not come from the ‘natural world’ but from the activities of established human society, specifically animal domestication. Diseases that have jumped to us from domestic animals include:
- Poultry 26
- Rats / Mice 32
- Horses 35
- Dogs 65
- Pigs 42
- Sheep and goats 46
- Cattle 50
Note the absence of cats from this list. This illustrates the fact that diseases only proliferate in social animals, which are usually non-predators.
When the Spanish colonised the Americas they introduced all the childhood diseases of the Old World to a virgin population, where they instantly became killer diseases. I don’t know of a single killer disease being transferred in the other direction, from the new to the old (syphilis was suggested however I believe instances of this are recorded in Europe before the colonisation of the Americas).
For an introduction to the fascinating and counter-intuitive world of epidemiology I would recommend Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill (Anchor Press/Doubleday 1976). This takes as a starting point the notion that ‘everything is a parasite’, and for socialists presents a particularly interesting comparison of micro- (ie. germs) and macro-(ie. ruling class) parasitism and their effects on historical societies. For a less in-depth treatment of the subject you could try Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W.Norton, 1997).
An isolated, exotic disease has little chance to spread, and therefore no chance to mutate. In fact the more deadly it is, the worse its chances of spreading. In the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the virus had to be given a lot of help to spread via human activities (big funerals), and yet the epidemic had already tailed off by the time a vaccine was ready, so much so that medics had trouble finding enough live cases to test their vaccines on. This in turn meant drug companies lost a lot of money, which is also why they have been reluctant to come forward to sink money into coronavirus research.
Garden-variety viruses like Covid-19 spread and mutate constantly, and they are already better adapted, meaning that it takes fewer key mutations to make the species jump. This means they are much more dangerous to us than some new unknown disease from the uncharted wilds. Unlike most ‘stupid’ viruses, Covid-19 has pulled a blinder. It knows how to fool our immune system so it can operate under the radar, it blocks warning messages from infected cells to other cells, and it spell-checks its own RNA (only DNA normally does this) to prevent potential attacks on its data integrity (New Scientist, March 21). The odds against an unknown, non-human-adapted disease being able to do all this purely by accident are astronomical, I would think.
Not that any of this justifies plundering the carbon sinks of the rainforests. But I think the argument of killer diseases is very weak compared to the argument of diversity, for example. We stand to get a lot more benefits (e.g., new drugs) from the jungle than toxic epidemics.
What is the socialist take-home (and stay-home) message from this? That it’s all capitalism’s fault would be an absurd simplification. It’s not immediately obvious to me how socialism would have been any better prepared. The WHO warned of such an epidemic in 2003 but nobody can develop a vaccine before the new virus has even appeared. One coronavirus is not like another. A single mutation can make all the difference in the world.
A more realistic argument we could explore is that socialist society would be better equipped to deal with such a crisis once it had arisen, partly because it wouldn’t need to worry about a global economic crash, or unpaid wages, rents, mortgages or taxes, and partly because it’s geared to cooperation in the first place, as opposed to cooperation as a last resort.
My account of the nature of coronaviruses and their probable origin in bats was based on a number of recent articles by specialists in relevant scientific disciplines, mainly virology and epidemiology. I made the mistake of naming only one such source – Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading. For those who wish to explore the topic further, the other specialists on whom I relied were: Tara C. Smith, who teaches epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health and whose article ‘The Animal Origins of Coronavirus and Flu’ was published in Quanta Magazine on February 25; and two teams of Chinese researchers, mostly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose articles in the March 2019 issue of National Review of Microbiology (here) and in Nature 579 (2/3/20) (here) also provide further references.
The works of William H. McNeill and Jared Diamond do not provide much of an introduction to epidemiology. Neither is a specialist in epidemiology or in any other scientific discipline. They are historians (Diamond may also be considered an anthropologist) with an amateur interest in epidemiology. For a real introduction to epidemiology, see the text by Caroline Macera and her co-authors.
Turning to substance, there is a process of mutual adaptation of viruses and their animal or human hosts. The danger to the host arises when the virus adapts to the host faster than the host adapts to the virus. This is a temporary situation: the danger passes once the host has caught up, as seems to have happened with Ebola. However, a virus that is new to a specific host can wreak havoc in the period before that host successfully adapts, as shown by the tragic fate of the aboriginal people of the New World.
As for the argument about the danger inherent in excessively rapid human expansion into hitherto untapped areas of the natural world, I first encountered it years ago in a book by an epidemiologist that I have not managed to track down. I still find it persuasive.
It is not particularly dangerous if the boundary between tapped and untapped areas shifts gradually, giving people enough time to adapt to the unfamiliar bacteria and viruses encountered in the newly exploited areas. However, if the boundary shifts too fast then humans will indeed be exposed to and defenseless against the ‘new’ pathogens.
Historical experience is of limited relevance to the current situation because in the past the boundary was relatively stable and now it is not. This partly a result of the capitalist drive for profit, partly also a result of the pressure of rapidly growing human populations (in Africa, for instance).
I know that the rainforest, and especially those parts which remain untapped, is a source of new drugs and other benefits to humanity. That, however, is no reason to claim that it is not also a source of dangers. I do not see how anyone can possibly assess the balance of benefit and danger, because most of the benefits and most of the dangers are still unknown.
I should add that rapid human expansion is not the only likely source of unknown diseases. It may not even be the main such source. I am especially concerned about the reactivation of long-dormant bacteria and viruses from earlier ages frozen in the permafrost as the ice melts. See, for instance, here.
I agree that there are many other valid reasons to preserve the rainforest, some of them even more important than the threat of pandemics. But it is not essential for an article devoted to one specific reason to indicate all the others.
All socialists, of course, will agree with Comrade Paddy Shannon’s last paragraph.