What we should do to avoid next Covid-19

THE world is going through a crisis like never before in recent history.

Tens of thousands of people have succumbed to the new coronavirus as this contagion spreads at an alarming speed.

World leaders and health sectors are confronted with a war-like quandary. The battles are made invincible due to the invisibility of the enemy. But the full thump has yet to be felt. The pandemic’s knock-on effects to the global economy are just beginning and will exacerbate with time.

Everyone is at wit’s end trying to fathom the post-Covid-19 era. The impacts of a pandemic of this scale will be multifaceted and alarming in intensity.

The economy, food security, social structures, politics, governance, education, businesses, work, physical wellbeing and mental health – all with be affected one way or another. Nothing will be the same again. Change is imminent but not towards the normalcy to which we were used.

Undeniably it is hard to be buoyed with optimism after experiencing a crisis like a pandemic. No matter how hard you try, a grim prospect looms in the horizon.

Make lemonade?

Amidst the global panic about the imminent upheavals post-Corvid-19 will bring, there has been a calm plea from personalities representing all walks of life.

Let us “make lemonade”, urged Hollywood actor and producer Matthew McConaughey in a reassuring video.

“Every red light eventually turns green,” he told his close to three million followers on social media. We all have heard of the proverbial phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

Essentially it is an encouragement for us to be positive in the face of adversity.

When Covid-19 unleashed an unprecedented onslaught, there was no room for laissez-faire approach. Lockdown measures sprang into action. So far this has proven effective as a means of preventing catastrophic outcome. 

On one hand, praises have been generous on New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern for her impeccable handling of the crisis. Such generosity has not been extended to US President Trump who has definitely blundered big time.

There is a useful lesson to be learned here. Lockdown only swung into action after the pandemic was recognised and declared globally. It was a fire-fighting technique, an after-thought of sort. A crucial step taken only after the problem threatened. Timely and effective as it turned out to be, could we have done better?

1. Stop deforestation. 

As the world scrambles to cope with an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, many epidemiologists warn us that this is not a random act of God but brought about by how we have treated our own environment.

Malaysia’s rich tropical rainforests have been under threat from rapid deforestation for decades now. Its deforestation rate has accelerated faster than in any other tropical countries.

Between 1990 and 2010, Malaysia lost 8.6%, or 1.92 million ha of its forest cover. As a result, countless species of wildlife have been forced to seek new areas for survival. Among them are creatures that have been giving refuge to infectious microorganisms within them. These microbes including bacteria, parasites and viruses have evolved to replicate and multiply without harming or causing any adverse effect towards their natural hosts. It has been a harmonious existence for eons.

In the Malaysian context, deforestation is undoubtedly the primary cause for the emergence of Nipah virus in 1998.

The fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family were the natural host of Nipah virus. The disease which was characterised by acute respiratory infection and encephalitis showed a high fatality rate of 40%-75%. The Nipah virus disease killed hundreds of people in several outbreaks in Asia. It was a vivid example of a spill-over event fuelled by deforestation and landscape changes.

Logging and the clearing of rainforests for palm oil plantations were said to have displaced fruit bats from their natural habitats.

This forced the bats to seek for new food source which drove them into nearby pig farms and tropical orchards with mangoes, langsat, rambutans and other tropical fruits galore.

Bats were known to drop food more than they consumed. Their virus-containing saliva and faeces came in contact with pigs feeding below on food discarded by the bats. This was how pigs, serving as the second host species to the Nipah virus, became infected. The final spill-over occurred from pigs to humans where disease manifestations became full blown.

Deforestation, therefore, needs to be halted to break this chain of transmission. It will effectively deprive the virus from making that fateful jump from animal-to-human, like how a lockdown prevents the spread of Covid-19 virus.

2. Improve Institute of Medical Research

The Institute for Medical Research (IMR) in Jalan Pahang was established by the British in 1900 as the Pathological Institute in Kuala Lumpur.

At the time, IMR was established to carry out diagnosis and research in areas deemed important in advancing the general health of Malaysians. Its activities, however, were generally limited to infectious tropical diseases.  

The Institute has made significant contributions to our knowledge, understanding, treatment and control of some major tropical diseases, including beri-beri, malaria, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, leprosy, tuberculosis, filariasis, dengue and scrub typhus.

In post-Covid-19, IMR needs to step up to the plate and do more. Over the years, research outputs from IMR have been dismal, far from ground-breaking and worthy of mention in the scientific world.

In terms of international outputs in frontier medical research, achievements charted by newer medical research institutes around the region have been more impressive, for example, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research (Australia), Malaghan Institute of Medical Research (New Zealand) or the Korea National Institute of Health.

IMR needs to be upgraded not only with respect to state-of-the-art research instrumentations and facilities but also in human expertise and services. It must quickly emerge as a medical research institute of world class.

3. Increase research funding for zoonotic diseases

Zoonoses are diseases caused by infectious agents that spread between animals and people. Among all diseases affecting humans, this category of communicable diseases has been put on the back burner for a long time by scientists and health researchers.

In the post-Covid-19 era this attitude needs to change. Zoonotic diseases must be elevated to be among the top priority areas for research and development. Estimates put six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in humans can be spread from animals. More worryingly, among the newly emerging diseases in today’s modern society, three out of every four come from animals.

4. Form a dedicated virology research unit

Estimates put nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses exist in numerous species of wildlife out there.  Among them may well be the future culprits of pandemics, as deadly as Covid-19, if not more.

Viruses are microbes incapable of multiplying and surviving on their own. They rely on the biosynthetic machineries of cells they infect in order to replicate and continue to live. When found outside living cells, they would die rapidly.

The world has encountered scores of such viruses in recent years. Deadly viral strains, previously unknown to science, had unexpectedly spilled out of the rainforests in a waves of infection, sometimes in pandemic proportions.

To mention a few, these include Ebola virus in Zaire and Sudan (1976), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in New York and California (1981), MERS virus in Saudi Arabia ( 2012) and Ebola virus in West Africa (2014). Now, the latest thump on the drum is Covid19.

We need a visionary step to increase our preparedness and competencies for the next pandemic. A laser-focussed research in the field of virology is necessary to gain useful insights on the next viral agent lurking around the corner.

5. Stop wildlife trade

Currently, KLIA is known as a notorious “destination airport” and transit location on the wildlife trade route.

Malaysia is one of the top 10 hubs for wildlife smuggling. Only in the past few decades, it has become the primary route in the trafficking of rare and endangered wildlife protected under the law.

A 2016 report by Wildlife Justice Commission revealed that Kuala Lumpur is the easiest port to move illegal wildlife. This is purportedly due to rampant corrupt practices of having to bribe the airport officials for the release of illegal consignments.  

The most popular animals trafficked include macaques, hornbills, rare birds, rare reptiles, baby sun bears, gibbons, deer, pangolins, tortoises and clouded leopards. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime estimates the global wildlife trafficking industry to be worth between US$7 billion (RM31 billion) and US$23 billion annually.

Trade in wildlife for food and pets is increasingly becoming massive. What used to be primarily confined to China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asian countries, the supply chains today have stretched to Africa and the US and Europe. Fortunately, wildlife markets are illegal in Malaysia. In Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia wildlife market is commonplace.

The markets are often in deplorable conditions. They sell almost every conceivable wildlife species including live rats, squirrels, civets, pythons and turtles. Here, animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot.

Unknown to vendors as well as purchasers of these animals, there are countless alien pathogens in these marketplaces which at some point could pose a serious threat to humans. Wildlife markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens.

The crowded and casual mingling of people in densely packed wildlife markets inevitable resulted in close contacts with animals on sale. Interaction and opportunities for microbes to move from within animal species and ultimately from animals to humans increased. 

Covid-19 phas triggered China to outlaw wildlife trade on a temporary basis. But this is far from an exoneration nor a hope for the future. Such outlaw also followed SARS pandemic but wildlife trade was allowed to resume not long after the pronouncement. 

Covid-19 should not have taken the world by surprise, but it did. No nation in the world was adequately primed for this horrific onslaught.

Simply stated, everyone was caught flat-footed. Humanity was jolted into a sombre realisation how fragile our constructs are; how a miniscule particle left to assail unimpeded can have such dire consequences on a global scale.

There is no better time than now to ask whether things might be different if we had been more proactive. If only we had grabbed that proverbial paying, could we have avoided this monster Covid-19? 

We are now presented with an unprecedented opportunity to take pre-emptive steps to know more about our future enemies. – April 10, 2020.

* Ghazally Ismail reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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