Ecocentric

After SARS: A New Virus in Saudi Arabia Underscores the Need to Police Disease in Animals

A new and deadly coronavirus emerges in Saudi Arabia. When will we learn to predict emerging diseases in animals before they make the jump to humans.

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Christian Keenan / Getty Images

Train passengers wearing free masks handed out by the Kowloon-Canton Railway on March 26, 2003. A total of 299 people died in the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003

I became a science writer — well, at least a part-time one — because I lived through SARS. I was a reporter for TIME’s Hong Kong office 10 years ago, mostly covering books, films and whichever exotic destination I could convince my editors to send me to. (Like … Guangzhou!) But when SARS started spreading in Hong Kong in the spring of 2003 — from where it leapt to much of the rest of the world — I was hooked immediately. Experiencing science in real time, with human lives and billions of dollars on the line, was pure cut excitement. I remember getting a glimpse through an electron microscope of the coronavirus that caused SARS, not long after researchers at Hong Kong University had identified it, and being fascinated that a packet of genes, just 100 nanometers in diameter, could cause so much trouble. (For the best book on the SARS outbreak, check out former TIME Asia editor Karl Greenfeld’s China Syndrome — and not just because I’m in the index.)

But my conversion wasn’t just about the rush of following an outbreak in real time. An emerging infectious disease like SARS pulls back the curtain on our world and demonstrates just how interconnected we all are, in more ways than just the global economy or international air travel. SARS, like most new diseases, started in an animal before jumping across the species barrier to human beings. The original reservoir for SARS was actually a bat, and it’s still not clear how the virus managed to cross from them to us, though the anything-goes standards of the live markets of southern China, where wild animals of all sorts are available for consumption and where the SARS outbreak began, definitely played a role. Researchers initially thought that civet cats transmitted the virus to human beings — Chinese officials even culled thousands of civet cats in the months after SARS to prevent a resurgence — though now it seems possible that the cats caught it from us. No matter how the virus jumped, it made one thing clear: virologically speaking, we’re connected not just to humans, but to many other species. Their health is ours.

(MORE: WHO Offers Countries Guidance for Identifying SARS-like Virus)

That’s worth keeping in mind as health officials grapple with another new coronavirus. Since the new pathogen first came to light in Saudi Arabia last fall, at least 15 people have been infected and more than half have died. Like SARS, it causes severe respiratory illness — and like SARS, there’s no ideal treatment. So far the new coronavirus hasn’t been able to spread easily among human beings, and it’s possible that — like the vast majority of emerging pathogens, including SARS itself — it will never fully establish itself in our species. But as the virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands told the Guardian’s Ian Semple:

We don’t know whether this virus has the capability to trigger a full epidemic. We are completely in the dark about it. We think what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg, but we don’t know how big the iceberg is, or where the iceberg is.

What Fouchier is saying is true for emerging pathogens more generally. Animal health gets just a fraction of the resources that human health does, which is why we are rarely able to detect new viruses before it’s too late and they’ve already crossed the species barrier. In the wake of SARS and the avian flu flare-ups over the past decade, however, that is beginning to change. I’ve written before about the virologist Nathan Wolfe and his Global Viral Forecasting group, which tries to use on-the-ground surveillance and computer modeling to predict when and where new viruses will emerge to threaten the human race. But there other groups working to police the boundaries between human and animal health, and one of them — the New York City–based EcoHealth Alliance — has a new paper out that demonstrates just how many unknown coronaviruses are out there, competing to be the next SARS. “This is really critical stuff,” says Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth. “It was on the back burner, but with SARS and everything after, it’s become a major concern.”

(MORE: New SARS-like Virus Detected: Should We Be Worried?)

Researchers from the group screened more than 600 bats from 42 species in Mexico, looking for new viruses. (Bats, for reasons that aren’t clear, seem to play a critical role in spreading new viruses to humans; besides SARS, bats were also the reservoir for the Nipah virus, which causes a neurological and respiratory disease that’s infected hundreds of people, chiefly in Southeast Asia.) The investigators were able to identify 13 distinct coronaviruses, and all but one had never been characterized before. As viral-fishing expeditions go, this was very, very good — and very, very scary; the fact that there are that many new viruses in a relatively small sample of bats is a sign of just how little we know about the microbial threats on the horizon. “If you start looking around, you’d find hundreds of thousands of unknown viruses waiting to be discovered,” says Daszak. “Most will be harmless — but some will be lethal.”

Daszak notes that the Saudi coronavirus seems unlikely to be anything more than an isolated threat. But as more and more people crowd the planet — and as we push back forests and other wildlife habitats, putting us in ever closer contact with a range of new and potentially germ-filled species — the danger from emerging diseases is only likely to grow. “You have five new diseases emerging each year, and that rate is increasing,” says Daszak. “We have to be able to increase our surveillance.” The truth is that as bad as SARS was — the disease killed nearly 1,000 people and cost tens of billions of dollars worth of damage — we were lucky that the outbreak was as mild as it was, just as we were lucky with the relatively weak influenza pandemic of 2009 (which, don’t forget, initially spread to human beings from pigs). It’s unlikely we’ll be so lucky every time.

MORE: Why Some People Are More Likely to Catch a Cold

25 comments
RobinJames
RobinJames

Sad news but still need to fight against this disease. Care can week the strength of any disease, so need to care allot for fighting against this. Actually i am living in Nigeria (Africa) nowadays and i use to go to http://www.iafrica.tv/al-jazeera/ to watch this channel. I keep my self update through this link.

frish
frish

The mention of hundreds of thousands of viruses - benign or virulent is something few consider as humanity causes the greatest extinction episode in 65 million years.

Polar bears and tigers may not survive, too bad.

No one considers all the bacteria and viruses we're disrupting, through farming, over fishing, deforestation, mining, petroleum extraction..etc.

More life exists beneath the ground than above it...and here we go fracking ourselves silly.

Sure, infectious diseases without cures and high mortality rates are scary.  And, by our all too human habits of remaking the world to suit us we are exposed to more virulent diseases.

What's scarier is how humans are staring in our own experiment, how much of the interconnected web of chemical and other energy known as LIFE can be changed by us, through extinction, pollution, etc., before the planet is no longer habitable by humans...

www vhemt org

DannyLu
DannyLu

It's unfair to point the blame to animals causing the virus when we, despite being urged in so many ways not to harm innocent living beings, but we chose not to acknowledge it.. We crossed the lines, and we invaded into their peaceful existence.. The monstrosity behind the slaughter of these animals is beyond the comprehension of man.. Anyone with a conscience will know it is wrong but we simply "gave in" to demands of false advertisements, to peer pressure, fearing for being rejected if we do not play along.. We feast behind the death curtain of slaughterhouses.. We used to build our confidence and pride from achievements and progression, but we failed miserably in those, and to compensate such losses we inject our "superiority" or "discriminative" power against helpless animals, putting them to death and claiming victory in the process.. Viruses do not simple JUMP to Human Beings.. They are MEANT for Human Beings.. There won't be a need for one invention if we don't need them.. That's a fact.. Our natural roles- to lead, to guide and to put order into things, to manage well, to instill progression and growth, to cure, to heal, and to love.. Animals roles are purely Nature, they do not need money or material assets to survive, they do their work in balancing the eco system, they help us in our Nature-based work.. Pigs, chickens, fishes, cows, have come along way since their inception as food in early days, now dogs, horses, cats, lizards, bears, and so much more are attracting food enthusiasts and it may seem as disgusting at first but if they make their way to super markets, it won't look as disgusting as in "flesh" all looks the same, skin anything, slice them, and wrap them up, no one can differentiate them, even human looks the same with other animals in "flesh" mode.. Hence, viruses will keep introducing themselves if we can't control our lusts, if  we can't stop slaughtering them, what goes around comes around.. China is one hell of an animal flesh freak show, because they have poor conscience.. And it goes without saying, that countries who follows after them like Saudi Arabia, can expect even more viruses knocking at our doors.. We only need to look at the painful deaths and knowing we are powerless against such viruses, is good enough to know we have done something really wrong.. Of course, pharmaceutical and drug companies will never complain of such viruses because it's profit opportunity for them but what if they are not up to speed? Are we to accept such horrible end to our lives? Why are we spending so much money to build animal farms, slaughterhouses, and later spend so much money in paying for our medical bills and paying for drugs to stop the viruses we have created? Does it make sense in any possible ways? 

justice63k
justice63k

it's interesting that when humans were hunters and gatherers they were relatively disease-free. As soon as humans settled into communities with animals living near us is when TB, animal-borne viruses, such as pig/avian/bovine/equine flu and cold, and other animal diseases transferred to and infected, maimed, killed humans.  Perhaps the message is we are not supposed to live with animals and certainly not eat those animals that eat flesh, with exception of fish and such.  So no eating of shark, eel, snake, pig, dog, cat, bat, rat, and all those animals God prohibited us from eating!!!! 

Seems there will be a price to pay for the bad dietary habits of others!!!!

Reemz____
Reemz____

@muqbilM انت انسان غريب تختفي فجاة… و تطلع فجاة. :) {{احب تغريداتك}}

SamaraS.
SamaraS.

Considering how genetically similar we are to animals, it's not surprising that diseases can travel across species. With that in mind why is it only now that we're looking closely at links in health across species? By observing how animals that get sick in the wild react to  treat themselves, we can find new plants/something that will help with discovering cures

totisantiago
totisantiago

@TIME they deserve it..

justice63k
justice63k

@totisantiago @TIME at least they do not eat swine, where most of the diseases originate.  do you eat swine?

vicbug84
vicbug84

“%s: After SARS: A new virus in Saudi Arabia underscores the need to police disease in animals | %s1X%sing

nora1217
nora1217

@TIMEME: After SARS: A new virus in Saudi Arabia underscores the need to police disease in animals ti.me\/ZX0iG7DPHpc”

moin09
moin09

%s i don't know why %s is giving problems to the %s countries %s 29

anotheraka
anotheraka

@TIME I hope bit kills all those misogynistic pedophile Muslims off!! ALL Muslims believe in that shit otherwise they aren't muslim.

justice63k
justice63k

@anotheraka @TIME 

there are more rapes in the US than any other place in the world.

there are more child sexual offenses in the US than anywhere else in the world. 

please stop your hate of others.  hate is also killing our planet.   don't you know, or are you just too stupid and uncaring. if so, perhaps you were sexually molested by your uncle?