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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Is the Covid-19 pandemic anybody's fault?

There have been a number of viruses which have jumped from animals to humans during the past 30 years, here are some of the more famous ones: Nipah, Ebola, SARS-CoV, Mers-CoV, H5N1 influenza (bird flu), H1N1 influenza (swine flu), Zika and now, most famously, SARS-CoV-2 (which is the official name of the Corona virus causing the disease called Covid-19). Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus has far too long a name to be famous, but with 40 percent of the people who get it dying, it's a serious contender. It's a disease of sheep, cattle and goats and it gets passed to people by ticks. If you want some sleepless nights, you might like to think about a genetic shuffle that gave it person to person transmission.

While research into the mechanisms of all these viral jumps has been intense and is on-going, I don't recall anybody talking about who was to blame for these jumps. Blame and compensation typically share a bed on cold nights and hefty financial and human costs tend to see all manner of people trying to slip under the same covers and claim some conjugal rights.

Jesus is supposed to have told a bunch of would be stoners of an adulterous woman to line up for their turn behind a sinless first thrower. Perhaps he thought that being a smart arse would slow the crowd down a tad, maybe it did. But I doubt it will slow down the likes of the President of the country that was pivotal in the evolution of Swine flu. SARS-Cov-2 exposed the weaknesses and inequaltities in the US medical infrastructure and, in an election year, it's much better to divert attention elsewhere than to admit to shortcomings and focus on fixing them.

Had Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and the rest of the gang proposed instead an IPCC style body to focus on diseases with pandemic and deadly potential, then that would possibly have got near unanimous international support, even, I'm guessing, from the Chinese. But the transparently obvious political motivation of the blame (and compensation) game should be obvious to all ... except that it isn't.

Why don't we focus on preventing future pandemics?

Instead of focusing on blame, why don't we focus on finding the processes that increase the risks of deadly pandemics, particularly viruses and change them?

The WHO published a list back in 2015 of emerging diseases likely to cause major health emergencies. It didn't include the major killers which were already the subject of huge research efforts; things like HIV, malaria, avian influenza for example. The new list were more like additions to an already long list. Most of the diseases on the list are caused by viruses and any of them could have caused a pandemic of similar consequences to that being caused by SARS-CoV-2. If we start apportioning blame for one of these diseases, do we do it for them all? Do we seek compensation from the US for swine flu?

In an industrial setting we certainly blame people for accidents, but only where we are convinced that they've been negligent. But we try even harder not to wait for the accident to happen. Instead, we try to monitor and detect systems which are deficient. Most countries can and do prosecute people for poor work practices. The goal isn't revenge, but prevention.

If we want prevention, then we need to focus on changing processes. Wet markets, not just in China but in many parts of the world and an obvious target. What's a wet market? The term "wet" is the giveaway; it denotes blood, guts, feces and slaughter on site. Many asian markets are full service supermarkets; not just meat, but all produce.

The plants are never the problem (except when contaminated by animal material).

Wet markets tend to offer not just animal products but plants as well. Plants get viruses, but they are so different and specialised that jumping to animals, while possible, is considered unlikely.

So the blindingly obvious first step in insulating us from viruses that might jump from animals is to keep all their slushy bits away from us; particularly excretions of any kind, not just fecal. When H5N1 bird flu first jumped in the late 1990s, one surprising pathway was cock fighters clearing the airways of their fighting birds by sucking (with their mouths) the snot from their noses.

The other not so obvious step is to deal with the processes that gave us swine flu; factory farming. But that's a topic for another day.



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