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Mr David Quammen, renowned investigative journalist, joined the Environment Society this week via Zoom to give his perspective on ‘the Ecology of Emerging Viruses’.

Starting on a very topical note, we were introduced to the origins of viruses, which are often detected in wildlife. Historically, humans were able to largely avoid contracting dangerous viruses from nature, but as humans interacted more closely with the animal kingdom, spillover began to occur, the technical term when a virus is transmitted from its host species to another. More specifically, ‘zoonosis’ describes infections that are transmissible directly to humans, with bubonic plague the most famous example of a zoonotic virus.

From here, our hyper-connected world ensures the potential for things to spiral out of control. Once a virus has spread across a country, it is classed as an epidemic. When the virus has spread globally, it is a pandemic, a term we are all familiar with by now. The threat of new viruses, just like COVID-19, is ever- increasing. As we continue to denude the natural habitats of wild animals, humanity is driven closer to the animal world whilst animal species are driven into human settlements in order to find food and habitats, increasing the risk of spillover.

There are now seven coronaviruses that are known to infect humans. One of the most famous of these is SARS-CoV-1. With a death rate of about one in ten, it spread across the world between 2002 and 2004, infecting thousands, and killing around 800 people. The major difference that allowed the spread to be halted much more quickly than the coronavirus that emerged at the end of 2019, was that the lack of asymptomatic spread. In the aftermath of SARS, scientists warned that it was highly likely that the next pandemic would be a coronavirus, and that if there were to be asymptomatic spread, it would be incredibly difficult to stop. The question is, did we prepare ourselves for what many scientists would have called the inevitable? However we come to answer this, Mr Quammen was clear that we the opportunity now, to adapt our pandemic preparedness policies and consider for what might be on the horizon.

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