Science

A Warning From a Scientist Who Saw the Coronavirus Coming

“It’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this.”

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pavel Balyk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Peter Daszak is a zoologist who works in China and runs the EcoHealth Alliance, an organization that studies the connections between human and wildlife health. So coronaviruses, like the new one that’s spreading right now, are one of his areas of expertise. A few years back, Daszak was working with the World Health Organization, plotting out what the next global pandemic could look like, when he and some other scientists came up with the idea of “Disease X.” Disease X would hit this epidemiological sweet spot: It would transmit easily from person to person, and it would be deadly, but not too deadly. Even though scientists like him knew this sort of virus was coming, the world didn’t get ready, not soon enough. And Daszak says that even when this outbreak is contained, it won’t be the last one. We’re going to get bigger pandemics, and they’re going to happen more often. But if we pay close attention to what’s happening right now, next time could be different.

I spoke to Daszak on Wednesday’s episode of What Next about COVID-19, the cause, our response, and what comes next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Tens of thousands of people have been diagnosed with this disease worldwide, with more than 3,000 deaths. Yet there have been few deaths in the U.S. so far. Do we actually know how many cases are stateside? It’s been reported that we’re not testing that much, but that might change soon.

Peter Daszak: In most outbreaks, you never really know when it begins, what the true caseload is, what the environment is. All you can see are the people who come to the hospital and get tested and diagnosed. You don’t see people with mild infections, or people who are pretty sick in poor communities and just don’t make it, or people in communities that have trouble traveling.

When people start rolling out those test kits, we’re going to find a lot of cases in the U.S. and it’s going to look like this is spreading out of control. The truth is: It’s probably already been there—probably—and we’re now finding that out.

You know how this story goes. First there’s the panic, the search for something or someone to blame. In the case of the novel coronavirus, there was the story that the outbreak got its start at a local food market in Wuhan. But stories like that can get in the way of the bigger picture: More and more people are also living and working closer to wildlife. It isn’t about one or two individuals putting people at risk. The risk also comes from clear-cutting rainforests, remote mining, and even widespread suburbanization.

I would say we are the cause of almost all emerging diseases.

What do you mean when you say that?

We’re not doing it on purpose, but it’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this. The big things that drive these diseases are places on the planet where there’s lots of wildlife diversity, because they carry viruses, some of which can become pandemics in places where the human population is dense and growing. Because our contact with wildlife is higher, there’s more of a chance for viruses to get to us.

So humans are bumping up against these very diverse ecosystems.

It’s the way we bump up against them. I’ve found that things like land use, change, deforestation, road building, mining, and agricultural intensification are the reasons we push ourselves into wildlife habitat and get infected.

In your work, you build this case that our whole system right now—the way we interact with the environment, the economic engine that’s driving us—is part of the cause of these pandemics. I never hear it talked about like that on cable news. Why?

We’ve got used to this idea that we’re in a reductionist strategy to deal with things. We find this virus. We learn everything about the molecules on the surface. We have high-tech solutions to design vaccines and produce them. Truly, it all doesn’t work quickly enough to actually deal with an outbreak. These outbreaks are now moving in a matter of days. We saw cells emerge after two months and spread globally. This one took two weeks. We haven’t got time to develop vaccines and drugs quickly. But the public demands it and expects it.

There are over a million viruses like the novel coronavirus out there. You’ve found 500 different coronaviruses in bats alone, but it took you 10 years to do that work.

We need to do that on this scale so that we discover all the rest of those viruses. We need many more groups in many more regions doing this work. We then need to get those sequences we find into the hands of vaccine designers, because what’s the point in spending billions of dollars designing a vaccine to SARS if the virus that emerges this year is 20 percent different, and the vaccine doesn’t work? Let’s have vaccines across the whole group. We’ve heard about the universal flu vaccine. Let’s have a universal coronavirus vaccine. Let’s have a universal Ebola virus vaccine. I think that’s common sense.

Getting governments to commit to that seems really challenging. Every virologist I speak to thinks that a universal flu vaccine is the solution, rather than what we do now, which is hypothesize about what’s going to be the strain and then give what we think will work—even if we haven’t really tested it, we’ll see afterward how well we did. But it all costs billions of dollars and there aren’t any manufacturers who are very eager.

We need voices out there that advocate for dealing with pandemics as a process, not just individual pathogens. And it’s not just vaccines and drugs. We have the basic public health message of getting to rural communities that are on the front line and helping them reduce risk, talking to companies that are building roads to new mining facilities and asking about building a clinic. As we think about a more sustainable approach to doing business, sustainability regarding our health and the environment should be a part of it.

What’s frustrating is telling people repeatedly that we will see more, and more frequent, pandemics and then not seeing much change to get ready for that. A lot of us are in the middle of this outbreak, and we’re already saying that in two years, when we’re used to this one, are we going to be getting ready for the next one?

Do you think there’s gonna be chaos in the next few weeks?

It depends. There’s going to be chaos at certain levels. As all of us eventually get to know someone who’s been infected, no matter how logical you are, you’ll start to get some fear and then think, how did I make contact? Am I at risk? What am I doing wrong? I think in some cases there are going to be significant outbreaks that are just seeded and moving forward. And when we find out about them, they’re going to be pretty hard to control.

There was this piece in the New York Times this weekend in which the writer advocated for more aggressive action. He was saying that in 1918, when we had a flu pandemic, the places that really shut things down—closed the schools, closed the ballgames, closed ports, had people wear masks and keep their distance from each other—were the ones that had less of an impact. Do you think we’ll need to get that aggressive in United States?

I think we’re going to see things happen that we didn’t expect would happen. I think we’re going to see a personal invasion of our daily lives that we’ve not seen for a long time. And some people disagree, and that will lead to conflicts. How far will public health services go to actually force people to change our behavior? Don’t forget, we’ve got to get ready for the long term here. School closures might work to delay things for a few days or weeks, but at some point, this thing is probably going to be around in our human population for a couple years, maybe indefinitely. At some point, we have to get back to a more-or-less normal society with schools and businesses and global trade and travel. I really hope this is a wake-up call, and that we start to get more proactive on this. But let’s talk in two years and see if that really happens.

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