Few things are as haunting as tracking a viral outbreak through the cascade of headlines detailing worsening statistics, cities under lockdown, closed borders, canceled flights, evacuations and quarantines. More than 12,000 people have now been infected by the Wuhan coronavirus, mostly in China but in 26 other countries too, and more than 250 have died.
Viral outbreaks are a tragic unintended consequence of at least three factors crucial to human development — urbanization, globalization and industrialized farming. Viruses thrive and spread as long as there are new carriers or incubators, whether human or animal. It is not surprising that viral epidemics have increased in frequency and led to greater loss of life in the past few millennia, when more people crowded into densely populated cities. As a result, pathogens had the perfect conditions to cause the Plague of Athens in 430BC, as did the parasitic flatworms responsible for the many bilharzia outbreaks in Ancient Egypt.
Isolated outbreaks of disease in the mostly insular pre-globalized world eventually waned because there were fewer people or livestock to spread the illness. However, the rapid increase in migration, trade and related interactions that began in the Age of Discovery and has since nearly peaked has led to isolated epidemics becoming global pandemics, from smallpox and bubonic plague to the more recent variants of influenza.
This is not an argument against globalization; it is an observation aimed at identifying additional opportunities to develop common biosecurity standards across the globe given the level with which nations, societies, economies, lives and livelihoods are interconnected. After all, recent pandemics have been stopped in their tracks because of increasingly effective global cooperation and coordination, demonstrating the potential not just for combating existing viral threats but also pre-emptively crafting crucial safeguards against disease proliferation.
Shrinking arable land, dwindling water supplies and adverse weather events caused by climate change have brought food security concerns to the fore. In China and India, with a combined 2.8 billion people, livestock rearing is rapidly moving from traditional small-to-medium scale to resemble the West’s massive industrialized farms. In the absence of proper biosecurity and food safety standards, forcing livestock into ever smaller enclosures creates the ideal conditions for pathogens to spread, especially those that can be transmitted from animal to human, such as the Wuhan virus. It happened in the 1990s, when migratory birds brought the H5N1 avian flu virus too close to large scale poultry farms in eastern China. The swine flu pandemic in March and April 2009 was exacerbated by intensive livestock rearing operations and spread further by the global trade of poultry and pigs between North America, Asia and Europe.
For the Wuhan virus, the main culprit appears to be China’s wet markets, where animals are slaughtered to order or taken home alive. Animals from small-scale farms with no biosecurity come into contact with people, with little care or concern for food safety standards. It is not the first time these wet markets have been responsible for the spread of a deadly virus, and it is unlikely to be the last. In 2013, the H7N9 bird flu epidemic swept across China and caused at least 100 deaths, prompting authorities to temporarily shut down live poultry markets.
For the Wuhan virus, the main culprit appears to be China’s wet markets, where animals are slaughtered to order or taken home alive. Animals from small-scale farms with no biosecurity come into contact with people, with little care or concern for food safety standards.
Researchers also point to the increasingly lucrative trade in wild animals, driven by demand from China, as an additional factor in the emergence of previously unknown pathogens. It is worsened by the resultant rush to hunt, and find new hunting locations when target species are depleted in a particular area, combined with the crowding of different species that normally would not mix in the wild.
More than a third of China’s livestock is still raised in backyards or family compounds on small-scale mixed farms, which remain a source of income and food. Closing wet markets or forcing poor farmers to adopt biosecurity or food safety standards will do more harm than good, especially in an already beleaguered Chinese economy. Additionally, the consumption of expensive wildlife has become a status symbol, which incentivizes the continuation of wild animal hunting and trade. Previous attempts at disrupting supply chains of these wildlife markets or outlawing demand has only pushed prices up and made it more lucrative. For consumers, higher prices make the consumption of wildlife only more appealing.
The Middle East has so far been spared a raft of confirmed cases, aside from the Chinese family of four who traveled to the UAE from Wuhan, where the the virus was first identified. Nevertheless, there are important lessons on public health, food safety and biosecurity that build on those already learned from similar outbreaks in the past. Wealthier Arab nations are better able to act pre-emptively, by strengthening standards, adequately equipping and staffing medical facilities and enforcing biosecurity measures via compliance inspections.
Poorer nations remain vulnerable, relegated to responding after the fact, given the lack of means and, in some cases, technical know-how for implementing stringent standards that are far more likely to stifle growth than keep the nation safe from a viral threat.
For now, what most nations can do is simply remain vigilant, taking cues from the World Health Organization and relevant international bodies with staff on the frontline dealing with the crisis. The priority for Arab world governments is ensuring the public is well informed of the latest developments, debunking rumors and thus avoiding panic.