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Could climate change potentially reactivate pathogens as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox and bubonic plague?
In our previous blog post we comment on how humanity’s destruction of biodiversity is creating new and unprecedented conditions for new viruses such as Covid-19 to thrive. If anything, this pandemic shows the severity of the climate crisis, and how it has the potential of unleashing foreign microbes from unexplored places that inevitably come into contact with human beings.
Back in 2003, civets and snakes were briefly banned in China as it was discovered they likely transferred the SARS virus to humans. Although the use of wild animals is culturally embedded; for consumption, traditional medicine, and clothing to name a few, there is an increased risk of virus transmission when these exotic animals from different environments are kept in close proximity to one another. It provides a breeding ground for viruses to jump from one species to another, giving them reason to amplify, mutate, and develop into something much worse. If humans continue to encroach on these biodiversity hotspots, nature will find its way of fighting back.
Decomposing animal carcasses in thawing permafrost are likely to have a notable impact too. In 2016, Russia experienced an outbreak of Anthrax, thought to be induced by warming global temperatures. During a heatwave, the thawing permafrost (which can be more than 1,000 ft deep in some places), exposed a reindeer carcass that was infected with anthrax decades ago. Once frozen, the dormant spores of anthrax bacteria reignited and spread across the tundra, infecting reindeer grazing nearby who picked up the disease and transmitted it to humans.
Disease transmission from animals to humans is going to increase as temperatures continue to rise, because alterations in temperature, wind, and precipitation patterns can indirectly affect the pathogen’s reproduction and transmission rates. With this in mind, people must understand how the adverse impacts climate change could potentially reactivate pathogens as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox and bubonic plague, that may well be trapped in tundra across the globe.
As we all slow down and readjust our priorities, there is an opportunity to think about how we can rebuild again, and how we move forward in the wake of this disaster. Although it is easy to feel physically isolated at a time like this, we are mentally and emotionally connected through a shared global experience that will ultimately bring us closer together. Our relationship with nature is highly flawed, and we have much to learn from the natural world. But, through collective action we can simultaneously address this global health crisis and mobilise interventions that prevent global temperatures exceeding 1.5 degrees by 2030.