Coronavirus – we need to learn from Darwin

by Daphna Whitmore

It is surprising how rarely the authorities take an evolutionary perspective when dealing with health crises, such as the latest coronavirus spread. They talk about viruses mutating but that is a frequent occurrence, and they treat mutation as though it were equivalent to evolution. A mutation is just the start that generates the variation from which natural selection brings about evolutionary change. Most mutations never amount to anything because they don’t get selected.

Before looking at the environment in which the coronavirus emerged it is worth comparing it to influenza. At the time of writing:

COVID-19 in China: 80,000 cases in a population of 1.4 billion people. 2,239 deaths
COVID-19 in the US: 60 total cases 0 deaths
Outside China: 2,790 cases

By February 15, 2020 Influenza in the US (only):
At least 29,000,000 ill patients
At least 13,000,000 physician visits
At least 280,000 hospitalizations
At least 16,000 deaths, 105 children

 Paul Ewald, an evolutionary biologist, explains why the worst influenza epidemic, the pandemic of 1918, was so deadly:

The evidence tells us that the 1918 pandemic was not simply due to the sudden escape of a monstrous mutant into the human population. During the early months of 1918, the influenza was similar to the influenza that has recurred each year since.

But the situation on the Western Front at the end of the First World War was far from normal. There a virus could be transmitted prolifically from people who were entirely incapacitated by infection, as they were slowly moved from overcrowded trenches. Under such unusual conditions, predator-like variants of the influenza virus could exploit the infected without paying the price usually incurred from incapacitation, constantly exposed as they were to new potential hosts. These variants then overwhelmed their milder competitors and spread globally.

Today we do not have trench warfare but we do have animals kept in similar conditions. Science writer and anthropologist Wendy Orent says the emergence of this new virus was predictable, even inevitable. She says:

 To understand why requires looking back to an earlier virus that emerged in China, SARS. Like the new illness, SARS was caused by a coronavirus. In 2003, it exploded out of a “wet market” in Guangdon where civet cats, raccoon dogs and multitudes of other animals were caged together in tight, squalid conditions.

Orent has written on such events before and is author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease” and “Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South.” She argues that:

The initial victims were all connected to a huge wholesale market in Wuhan, where a thousand stalls housed untold numbers of live animals kept in crowded, filthy conditions. Such “wet markets” are widespread in China, providing a newly-affluent upper class with status-enhancing exotic animals to serve at dinner. Some people also believe that eating wild animals has health benefits.

The problem with the markets is that the unsanitary and tightly packed conditions in which the animals are held create perfect environments for the evolution of viruses that can jump from one species to another. The Chinese government shut down wet markets after the SARS outbreak, but that ban was short-lived.

Orent notes that SARS came from bats originally as appears to be the case with the new coronavirus.

Coronaviruses have proved themselves masters at jumping from one species to another, and how they affect each species can differ greatly. An infection hardly noticeable in a wild animal, perhaps a civet cat, may spread easily to the next cage, whether that cage houses more civets or another mammalian species. With coronaviruses, the jump from species to species appears to happen fairly easily.

The massive poultry farms of Asia, which may house as many as 5 million chickens, present a different but also potentially lethal source of human infection. There, viruses such as influenza become highly adapted and, in crowded circumstances, ever more deadly to chickens, as there is no cost to the virus if it’s lethal — the next host is only a beak away. These virulent avian influenzas can and have killed people. But humans have to catch them directly from the birds. Because they have become so precisely adapted to chickens, the viruses have little potential for human-to-human transmission.

The same evolutionary process can occur on massive pig farms, and can be even more dangerous to people, since people are more like pigs than like chickens. The deadly 2009 swine flu pandemic sprang out of one such massive pig farm in Veracruz, Mexico, where hundreds of pigs died in an outbreak that eventually moved into people.

Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 6.11.13 PM
A “wet market” in China

The environment of  “wet markets” creates the right environment for virulent diseases to be selected for amongst the animals and then spread to humans:

With SARS, as well as the new coronavirus, it appears that the virus jumped first to the people working with these animals in the market, and then began another process of evolution, which allowed it to spread from human to human, adapting to its new host species and becoming more effective at that adaptation all the time. As a result of such evolution, we get brand-new human diseases like 2019-nCoV, which did not exist only months ago.

Orent stresses we need to learn the right lesson from this outbreak:

If we want to forestall the evolution of ever-newer, and possibly deadlier, human-adapted viruses, live animal markets must be permanently shut down. Until the Chinese government outlaws these markets, until factory farms housing millions of animals are eliminated, until we take the inevitable logic of disease evolution into account, novel, and potentially deadly, human diseases will continue to arise. Again. And again. And again.

As well as stopping/preventing these virulent new diseases Orent rightly points out that panic and overreaction are not helpful. She reminds us: “80,000 people died of flu last year in the US alone, and there have been 16,000 so far this year. No one is happy about Covid. But please keep things in perspective.” 

 

12 comments

  1. I’ve lived in China for 2 years so I would like to correct some things mentioned in this article. First of all the wet-markets are used by the urban poor and lower middle class. People that are well off shop at gourmet supermarkets, where surprisingly you can buy New Zealand produce at a lower price than what we pay in our monopolist supermarkets. I personally would buy my fruit and vegetables from wet markets, but it’s recommended to buy meat from Halal butchers if the mall supermarkets are too expensive for you. That’s another thing that Western media lies about. Islam is a major religion in China and is practiced across the country by numerous ethnic groups including Han’s. I lived in the ancient Muslim quarters of Jinan where they have a 800 year old moseque and the local Chinese Muslim shopkeepers dressed in traditional Islamic clothing all year round and would invite everyone to their Ramadan feasts regardless of their religion. Even Uyghurs would explain to me that the troubles in Xinjiang are about a small minority of Islamist separatists who want to create a Taliban like state against the wishes of the majority of moderate Muslims from numerous ethnic groups along with the Shamanic nomadic ethnic groups that are native to that region. Most interesting of all. China is probably one of the only countries where you can have an in depth conversation with a multi-millionaire or billionaire about Marxism and they’ll tell you that their personal wealth is only a temporary stepping stone to advance the forces of production, so China can reach a higher stage of socialism. Even if that means their wealth will be taken away from them once they’ve serviced their historical role.

    • In regards to the corona virus. I believe it’ll have a positive impact. Xi Jinping in his writings has argued that China has almost completed the primary stage of socialism. Feudalism was abolished under Mao, Deng unleashed an industrial revolution and now China’s beginning to reach technological parity with the west. Xi in his theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era argues that the focus can now begin to move away from revolutionizing the forces of production and move towards revolutionizing social relations. Xi makes it clear that the ultimate goal is communism, but a welfare state that rivals the West is the first step. I believe that the corona virus will speed up their healthcare reform. The state already covers 70% of expenses and is aiming to move to full state coverage by 2030. The corona virus should speed this up and should once again remind the party of their foolishness for even listening to Chicago boy economists in the 1980’s.

    • The article mentions the well off eating exotic meats. Presumably, the restaurants they dine in source them from the markets. For instance, Civet is one of the main ingredients in the exotic wildlife dish “dragon-tiger-phoenix soup”, which is said to be very expensive.

      It’s funny to hear how those ultra-rich justify their unearned wealth. “For the advancement of production and socialism” (the capitalist variety of socialism, however, in China) and in New Zealand the narrative is “to create jobs”. Capitalists are just sooo altruistic.

      • Yes. ”Exotic” meats are expensive, but your average wet-market doesn’t sell them. They do however tend to sell live poultry, rabbits and fish. Which can be a potential health hazard. These are simply street vendor operations. It’s meant to be illegal to serve most exotic meats along with cats and dogs in restaurants, but it still happens. Most Chinese people especially younger ones, will explain it’s mostly older people who eat such things and they’re willing to pay top dollar due to the nostalgia factor. It reminds them of their rural childhood upbringing or their time as banished Red Guards, where hunting game was common. It’s usually in the South where these traditions occur as they have more tropical climates and dense forest. As for China’s Marxist capitalists, that’s a perfect example of how China’s a land of contradictions. The state ideology remains Marxist-Leninism and is mandatory throughout high school. China espouses a technocratic interpretation of Marxism. Its focus is on the dialectic between the productive forces and their social relations. Their argument from Deng onwards is that although Mao’s social revolution was needed to abolish feudalism and regain national sovereignty, Mao’s continuation of advancing social revolution within a mostly agrarian society was counterproductive. The focus should be on economic development and markets can be used so long as they remain subordinate to the state. Their promise is, is that advances in technology will pave the way
        for greater egalitarianism and the eventual negation of commodity relations. ”Socialism is not equality under poverty”. Deng Xiaoping.

  2. This article is on the right lines, but misses some crucial points. Every year China is the source of several flu epidemics due to poultry, pigs and humans living in very close proximity. Birds (the remnants of dinosaurs) have very primitive and basic immune systems. Viruses develop there and are then passed on to pigs, which have immune systems very similar to those of humans. These are ideal incubatory conditions for a cycle of developmental infection and re-infection. Wet markets do no themselves cause the development of a virus. They are a vector – not an incubator.

    In China, the flu epidemics erupt in April-May and migrate to the West by November – causing seasonal flu. On the basis of samples, a committee of the WHO takes samples at this time and tries to guess what the characteristics of the virus will be when it reaches the West so an appropriate vaccine can be produced. Sometimes they get it right, producing a vaccine with 80% coverage – and sometimes they get it wrong (as low as 3% coverage). As the virus travels around the globe, it mutates and generally attenuates is virulence.

    In relation to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918, people forget that during WWI, Britain and France imported 90,000 Chinese labourers straight from China to the Western Front to dig trenches and clean latrines. They brought with them their ducks and pigs. They also lived in appalling immune-compromising conditions. So, some scientists think, the virus developed right in the heart of Europe with no chance to attenuate its virulence.

    • The stress of captivity and the dirty conditions in the crowded wet markets (blood and dirty water) weakens the animals’ immune systems. This creates an environment where viruses from different species can mingle (and change) in a way that doesn’t happen in the wild. They then spread from one species to another.

      • I agree. It’s not the kind of animals consumed that leads to viral outbreaks, but the unsanitary conditions that live animals that are butchered on the spot and sold as meat within these markets. This outbreak and its connection to bats has revived sinophobic attitudes about culinary traditions in China. When the H1N1 swine flu that originated in the US accord and was far deadlier than Corona, people on social media weren’t saying that Americans deserve this because of their love of bacon and hot dogs. The state will most likely ban wet-markets, but that’ll cause additional social problems as many rural people supplement their income through them and Western style supermarkets are too expensive for many people.

  3. A correspondent with Redline wrote: One of the foci of conservation organisations’ in Asia is zoonotic diseases and the wildlife trade. The scale is huge. Lots of weird creatures are brought in, some have been intercepted from PNG en route to Asia – I know because I was asked to ID them – bear cuscus, long beak echnida (all pretty exotic).
    All of them sick after days of captivity – kept cheek by jowl with other sick animals.

    You are right to compare it to a WWI hospital. Anyone who assumes these markets are just for livestock is mistaken. Many of the animals aren’t on display.

    Rich Chinese also have a habit for exotic meats that aren’t on supermarket shelves. And let’s not forget their use in traditional medicine e.g. the massive trade in Pangolins (a possible contender along with bats for COVID-19).

  4. An interesting paper seemingly withdrawn when readers used it to further conspiracy theory.

    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2020/01/31/2020.01.30.927871.full.pdf


    or https://greatgameindia.com/uncanny-similarity-of-unique-inserts-in-the-2019-ncov-spike-protein-to-hiv-1-gp120-and-gag/

    “To our surprise, all the 4 inserts in the 2019-nCoV mapped to short segments of amino acids in the HIV-1 gp120 and Gag among all annotated virus proteins in the NCBI database. This uncanny similarity of novel inserts in the 2019- nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag is unlikely to be fortuitous.”

    China’s president has claimed teh virus may have originated in US. And I note the very large World Military Games less than 20km from the touted seafood market, and a few weeks before in October.

  5. An interesting paper seemingly withdrawn when readers used it to further conspiracy theory.

    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2020/01/31/2020.01.30.927871.full.pdf


    or https://greatgameindia.com/uncanny-similarity-of-unique-inserts-in-the-2019-ncov-spike-protein-to-hiv-1-gp120-and-gag/

    “To our surprise, all the 4 inserts in the 2019-nCoV mapped to short segments of amino acids in the HIV-1 gp120 and Gag among all annotated virus proteins in the NCBI database. This uncanny similarity of novel inserts in the 2019- nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag is unlikely to be fortuitous.”

    China’s president has claimed the virus may have originated in US. And I note the very large World Military Games less than 20km from the touted seafood market, and a few weeks before in October.

  6. An interesting paper seemingly withdrawn when readers used it to further conspiracy theory.
    “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag”

    “To our surprise, all the 4 inserts in the 2019-nCoV mapped to short segments of amino acids in the HIV-1 gp120 and Gag among all annotated virus proteins in the NCBI database. This uncanny similarity of novel inserts in the 2019- nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag is unlikely to be fortuitous.”

    China’s president has claimed the virus may have originated in US. And I note the very large World Military Games less than 20km from the touted seafood market, and a few weeks before in October.

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