The Man Who Saw the Pandemic Coming
This is an interview in the Nautilus with Dennis Caroll, the man who has been at the forefront of researching potential infectious diseases for humanity orignating from the animal genepool. “For decades, Carroll has been a leading voice about the threat of zoonotic spillover, the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. Scientists are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats. In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.”
In this outspoken interview, Carroll talks about why humanity’s encroachment of spaces hitherto dedicated to the wild have raised the probability of import of infectious diseases as well as echoing Yuval Noah Harari’s concerns on the lack of global coordination in tackling the current situation.
“The first thing to understand is that whatever future threats we’re going to face already exist; they are currently circulating in wildlife. Think of it as viral dark matter. A large pool of viruses are circulating and we don’t become familiar with them until we see a spillover event and people getting ill…. We’ve been able to identify bats as reservoirs for coronaviruses and documented specific bat populations as reservoirs for Ebola virus. We want to understand how each of these bats operate within an ecosystem. Do they have certain behaviors and practices that either keep them remote from or proximal to human populations? The bat population in which we isolated the Ebola virus in West Africa was a species of bat that also tends to co-roost within human housing, so it elevates the opportunity for spillover.
… EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO, and others, looked at all reported outbreaks since 1940. They came to a fairly solid conclusion that we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. That continues to increase, driven by the huge increase in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change—more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.
…This one [Covid-19] has a lower pathogenicity. The lower its virulence, the more likely it’ll become part of an endemic, part of a seasonal event. That’s one of the big things that’s going to be a worry. If it does go quiet over the summer months, then the question’s going to be, “Is it still infecting people?” We could be walking around in the middle of summer with influenza viruses, but they’re not active. They’ve just gone quiet. When the right ecology comes into play, it starts getting cold, and damp, then it starts replicating like crazy. If it’s able to park itself, and not kill its host over the summer months, then we’ve got a virus that has all the telltale signatures of establishing itself as part of our normative landscape, much to our detriment.
…In 2005, during the avian influenza, George W. Bush was on the phone routinely with leaders around the world about how to coordinate a global response. Barack Obama did the same in 2009 for the second H1N1 pandemic and in 2014 for the Ebola epidemic. You saw presidential leadership step up and act as a catalyst for forging a global way forward for a global problem. It has been absolute silence in this White House. I think the only reason the White House is even paying any lip service to this is because the stock market has gone into a free fall. So they’re trying to figure out what are the words they need to say to placate the stock market.
Because the Trump administration is only interested in America first. Populism here and across Europe and elsewhere has fragmented the global networks, which had been so instrumental in being able to bring together a global approach to problems like this. I’ve not seen any reports coming out of the White House that showed that as China was struggling to bring the virus under control, our president reached out to President Xi to talk about how to coordinate action. I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event. In Europe right now, you would never believe that there was a European Union. From where I sit, it looks like every country is making this up as they go along. Italy isn’t coordinating with Brussels. Brussels isn’t coordinating with Germany. There’s no coherent regional approach to this problem in Europe, even though they have a platform for doing it.”