Of all the existential threats to humanity, a global pandemic seems to be the most likely to cause a serious disaster. In this modern age of international travel, a contagious disease can spread halfway around the world before anybody even knows it’s there. This seems to be the case with the new virus that is causing panic in China, where the death toll is continuing to rise.
There are a few ways a new virus can appear, but one of the most common, and often most deadly, is when a previously animal-specific virus mutates and jumps the species barrier to humans. In the case of the novel coronavirus currently plaguing China, it seems like the source of the disease is bats. The cause of transmission seems to be people eating the bats, which are purchased from the vast food markets that are commonplace in China’s more rural areas. These markets often sell many dozens of different live animal species for food, including snakes, turtles, wild rabbits, foxes, Asian palm civets and frogs. The animals are kept in overcrowded cages next to each other. The urine and faeces are all washed out into pools around the edge of the market stalls, where they fester in the sun, which creates a perfect breeding ground for new diseases. These diseases then end up back in the animals where they are passed on to the people who eat the meat
China does have various laws which are intended to ban these kind of unsafe practices, but as an old Chinese saying goes, the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away; in other words, the laws are not well enforced across such a huge country where some parts seem to be living in a different age from the rest. It is easy to condemn the apparently irresponsible behaviour which allows this to happen, but it’s worth remembering that the industrial farming techniques used in the West are not all that much better. Confining any animal in high density situations promotes inter-species transmission of disease vectors. The only reason that industrial farming doesn’t breed new viruses is because of the high levels of antibiotics administered to the livestock. Of course, this may ultimately prove to be even worse, because it is leading to the rise of antibiotic resistant infections. The novel coronavirus has now killed over 200 people in China, which is obviously bad; but last year, in the US, 35,000 people died from antibiotic resistant infections, yet we don’t see that making the headlines. If we are to really get a grip on newly emergent diseases, we need to completely re-evaluate food production around the world.