Adding to the list of cities and countries locking down, the COVID-19 pandemic has now added to the list the San Francisco Bay Area with six counties ordering a ‘shelter-in-place’. The order requires residents to remain at home except for essential travel such as for buying groceries and visiting the hospital. Thankfully, residents can still continue to go outside to exercise provided social distancing is established by being at least 6 feet apart from others. As the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted both the global economy and healthcare systems, is the COVID-19 pandemic the blackswan of this new decade and what can we do to prevent future pandemics from happening?
Both Wall Street and Main Street are feeling anxious and fearful. After a bullish decade, the bear is out of hibernation with global financial markets falling precipitously. Now with many cities around the world on lockdown, the real economy will most likely be affected as
Large-scale quarantines, travel restrictions, and social-distancing measures drive a sharp fall in consumer and business spending until the end of Q2, producing a recession…Consumers stay home, businesses lose revenue and lay off workers, and unemployment levels rise sharply (McKinsey — COVID-19: Implications for business)
It is amazing how a microscopic organism is capable of causing such a devastating impact to the global economy and people’s everyday lives.
COVID-19 can be a mild to life-threatening respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus (2019-nCoV), which is commonly believed to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, China. As of 16 March 2020, the World Health Organization has confirmed 167,511 diagnosed cases and 6,606 deaths worldwide. Roughly ~3.9% of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 have resulted in mortality yet the current mortality rate may be over representative of the actual mortality rate given the difficulty of evaluating both asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic cases without costly population-wide diagnostic testing. For example, “…mortality rate in South Korea, where more than 1,100 tests have been administered per million residents, comes out to just 0.6%…”
Provided the global society continues to be united in its efforts, COVID-19 may not be as deadly as previous pandemics. For example, the 2009–2010 swine flu pandemic killed ~200,000 persons and the Hong Kong flu of 1968–1970 killed ~1 million persons. These statistics aren’t meant to discount the humanitarian crisis we are facing but rather the importance of assessing individual risk factors to contracting a severe case of COVID-19 and how to slow or eliminate the spread to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, patients with weakened immune systems, and the homeless.
With the human population growing and traveling to all corners of the world, pandemics are likely to become a more common occurrence, yet in 2018, Bill Gates noted:
…there’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress…and that’s pandemic preparedness.
This is evident from the varied responses to COVID-19 — China building hospitals within days, Italy overburdening their healthcare system, the US lagging in diagnostic testing, to Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan quickly containing the outbreak within their borders. The ability to expediently react to the current COVID-19 pandemic and to future pandemics will be important in curbing the economic and healthcare costs to global society.
While society may praise the efforts of the biopharmaceutical industry and government agencies in finding treatments and/or prophylaxis to COVID-19 and other emerging infectious diseases, there needs to be an understanding that such technologies may only be a partial solution to the ever-growing public health threat.
Just in the past two decades humanity has battled numerous emerging infectious diseases such as SARS, swine flu, MERS, ebola, and Zika yet we still don’t have any drugs or vaccines that adequately prevent or treat these diseases. HIV/AIDS continues to be a global health threat with health education being at the forefront of prevention and patients living with HIV having to take a lifetime cocktail of drugs to suppress HIV. Even vaccination for the seasonal flu has varied effectiveness each season as vaccine manufacturers need to guess which influenza strains may come up in the next season to develop the flu vaccine. If flu vaccine manufacturers guess right, individuals who are vaccinated will be protected from the flu, however, if they guess wrong, there is no benefit to have been vaccinated from the flu. Hence why each year there are still thousands of patients who die from seasonal flu due in combination to individual risk factors and variable vaccine effectiveness each year.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal agriculture, has also led to antibiotic resistant bacteria, which adds to the list of global health threats. Both viral and bacterial outbreaks will continue to occur even with advanced therapies as these microorganisms are capable of responding to them — viruses can vary their genetic make-up through antigenic drifts or shifts and bacteria can mutate or adapt their genetic make-up — resulting in microorganisms that are non-responsive to existing therapies.
There will be a continual need for scientists and drug manufacturers to discover and develop new therapies, however, society needs to understand that the majority (~90%) of investigational therapies that enter clinical trials won’t be effective and/or safe enough to enter the market and be the panacea to pandemics.
Despite the need for pandemic preparedness and innovative medical therapies, building an infrastructure to support future pandemics is akin to mopping the floor when the faucet is leaking — it tends to the symptoms rather than the cause. As mentioned previously, animal agriculture is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance due to misuse of antibiotics in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are also the perfect breeding ground for the development of zoonotic diseases — bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases that spread from non-human to human species. The SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, Nipah virus, MERS, avian flu, and swine flu outbreaks are recent examples of zoonotic diseases that can be attributed to how humanity has been treating animals for food, consumer goods, and entertainment. As Gene Bauer has stated:
Our disrespectful treatment of other animals and the earth has consequences, and when they are harmed, ultimately, so are we.
Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of companies attempting to solve the environmental, animal (and human) rights, and human health issues of animal agriculture. The most notable are Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat company, which had the most successful IPO in 2019 and Impossible Foods, which recently raised $500 million in a Series F funding round. Other food-centric companies, specifically based in California, include Memphis Meats, JUST, Ripple, and Kite Hill. There are many more startups around the world developing new products through plant-based innovations to cellular agricultural approaches — the production of animal-based material without the animal. As Liz Specht has stated:
It’s time to admit that we, as a civilization, have outgrown the dated notion of using animals to produce meat. Hunting and animal farming served their purpose for millennia of human population growth. But in 2020, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. We can’t keep doing this. The current system is broken. It is inefficient, insecure, unsustainable, and extremely unsafe.
Understanding that the current state of medical solutions to pandemics is lagging and alternative animal agricultural products will take time to scale and be fully adopted by global society, are there any steps an individual can take now to mitigate the risk of future pandemics?
Each and every individual has the choice each day to vote with their money whether they value their own health, the health of others (animals and/or humans), and/or the health of our planet. The longest living and healthiest populations in the world eat mostly plants — fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and legumes — and little to no animal-derived foods. What you eat during every meal or snack determines our future. Buy a lot of eggs, dairy, and meat; more CAFOs will remain overcrowded with sick and diseased animals contributing to zoonotic disease development and potential pandemics. Increase the demand for meat will increase the harm we do to our fellow human beings who process these sick and diseased animals for our consumption. Eat mostly animal-derived foods in every meal and snack greatly weakens the human body’s immune system, which will increase the risk of succumbing to chronic diseases and severe illnesses from future pandemics. By shifting to eating mostly plants, an individual not only prevents getting chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, but also contributes to preventing the next infectious disease pandemic from occurring.
Can we set aside our wants from our needs and be socially close again rather than distancing ourselves?
Disclosures: Views and opinions are my own. As of this published story date, I was an employee of Vir Biotechnology, Inc. and owned shares in biotechnology and CPG companies.