The Threat of Viruses

It’s dark, dank and eerily silent. Visitors Mike Lindley-Jones, an Australian doctor, and two ecologists from EcoAlliance, a non-profit organization in the US, are in Gomantong, an ancient cave in the Borneo region of Malaysia with NPR. The cave, made of 20-million year old limestone, is also the perfect hideout for bats. As the visitors make their way through, they are cautioned not to touch the bat guano, or waste, which could contain potentially dangerous materials.

Bats are a species known for carrying viruses, some of which are harmful to humans. However, bats are an essential part of the rainforest, as they are pollinators for over 500 plants.                                                         

“We need to recognize that there may be potential health risks when people and wildlife come together, and that’s why we’re working to understand and limit those risks,” disease ecologist with EcoAlliance Kevin Olival said. Olival and his team, while searching this cave and the nearby area, found 48 new viruses, including one related to SARS. Historically, however, major disease have come from domesticated animals and not wild ones. The fact that the crop of diseases in the last several decades has mainly come from wildlife is a fairly new development.

Gomantang Caves-Maymuna Elmi
The Gomantong Cave, in the Borneo region of Malaysia, has been around for millions of years. This cave has been a tourist hotspot for the last several decades.

Disease and the potential risk in humans coming into contact with animals is science writer Sonia Shah’s subject of choice. In her new book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Shah examines the history and science of contagious disease. As Shah told NPR, an important note from her research shows that humans continually put themselves in danger by “encroaching on wildlife habitats.” According to her, 60 percent of all new pathogens come from animals.

With all this potential for a new pathogen to turn into a widespread disease, the question becomes how we can prevent this from happening. This means we have to understand where diseases are coming from and what’s causing them to spread, which ultimately leads to a pandemic.

“We need to recognize that there may be potential health risks when people and wildlife come together, and that’s why we’re working to understand and limit those risks.”

–Kevin Olival

As Shah previously stated, most pathogens today actually come from animals. Ebola came from bats; malaria, HIV and most likely Zika came from monkeys; all sorts of influenzas come from birds and the list goes on. When humans invade wildlife habitats or interfere in ways which bring them into contact with animals, there is great risk for disease to translate between species. With travel happening so much these days due to tourism, humans and animals come into contact more and more.

Tourism isn’t all bad, though. For example, the Gomantong cave has become something of an ecotourist hotspot. Tourists from all around the world come to visit this cave, as well as the diverse wildlife in the surrounding rain forest. If it wasn’t for tourism, there’s a healthy chance this forest would have been cut down and converted into palm oil plantations. It is necessary that we strike a balance between benefiting from the environment and disease prevention through staying away from the animals’ natural habitats.

In the event that a huge pandemic breaks out, it likely won’t be one of these rare forms of disease such as Ebola or Zika, it will be a form of influenza, and Shah says this is what really keeps virologists up at night. Influenza pandemics, although on a more minor level, happen every year. Due to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has happened because antibiotics are increasingly used in non-medically necessary ways, we may end up facing an influenza which is resistant to our existing medications. Then a minor influenza becomes a major outbreak with no antibiotics to treat them, and the death toll could be devastating. Our latest example of this is the 1918 flu, where our lowest estimates put the death toll at around 100 million people. With the population today being greater than it was then, the number of people a pandemic could reach is much larger.