Even as COVID-19 is found in apes, big cats, minks, domestic cats, other small mammals, and now in U.S. deer, some don’t want to let go of the insultingly simplistic “lab leak” theory. Do they really think the 1918 influenza and AIDS pandemics (or Ebola, MERS, and SARS ) needed lab mendacity to exist? We won’t even talk about the prehistorical plagues!
Giving COVID-19 political not animal origins ignores its disturbing and widening zoonotic circle and limits public health policy solutions.
Scientists, for example, have confirmed that humans can both give and get COVID-19 from minks. (Minks were among the animals sold as food in Wuhan, China between 2017 and 2019, according to the journal Scientific Reports.) Zoo animals are increasingly diagnosed with COVID-19. And now the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has found COVID-19 in one-third of sampled white-tailed deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
APHIS speculates the deer may have contracted COVID-19 from humans but does not address deer-to-human transmission or venison consumption. Both free-range deer and deer bred at hunting ranges harbor non-COVID-19 diseases that transmit to humans, as I have reported.
It is too bad that the memories of “lab leak” theorists don’t go back as far as the chilling 2012 bestseller, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. In that book, award-winning science journalist David Quammen wrote, “In some zoonotic pathogens, efficient transmissibility among humans seems to be inherent from the start, a sort of accidental preadaptedness for spreading through the human population.” His example? SARS-CoV, the predecessor to COVID-19.
Quammen and the scientists who contributed to Spillover were so convinced of an imminent zoonotic pandemic, they abbreviated it NBO – the Next Big One.
Here is what Quammen wrote for Popular Science, adapted from his book.
Over the last half dozen years, I have asked eminent disease scientists and public-health officials, including some of the world’s experts on Ebola, on SARS, on bat-borne viruses, on HIV-1 and HIV-2, and on viral evolution, the same two-part question: 1) Will a new disease emerge, in the near future, sufficiently virulent and transmissible to cause a pandemic capable of killing tens of millions of people? and 2) If so, what does it look like and from where does it come? Their answers to the first part have ranged from maybe to probably. Their answers to the second have focused on zoonoses, particularly RNA viruses.
Wild animal breeding, livestock, and bushmeat, overlooked factors
It is not just lab leak theorists who are ignoring COVID-19’s zoonosis. The world’s top scientists and public health officials also ignore bidirectional animal transmission while focusing only on people. Why, for example, aren’t they more concerned about the livestock-harbored and related coronaviruses alphacoronavirus PEDV, already in the U.S., and the alphacoronavirus SADS-CoV indigenous to China? Both were described in recent research published in Emerging Infectious Diseases? PEDV, a coronavirus, killed seven million pigs in the U.S. and was endemic in Italy long before COVID-19.
Jason Gale, senior Bloomberg editor, agrees that over concern about virus origins can occlude scientifically crucial cues. “The hunt for Covid’s origins has become increasingly political,” he writes, when “SARS-CoV-2 most likely spilled over to humans from animals — either directly from a bat or via another mammal.”
Live caged and stacked animals in Chinese wet markets, including illegal and bred wildlife, carry other zoonotic infections if not SARS-CoV-2 researchers on the ground concluded during an investigation earlier this year.
With COVID-19 currently in U.S. minks, U.S. zoo animals, and now, U.S. deer, scientists ignore its zoonosis at our peril.
Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and the author of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com