COVID-19 and the Environment: How did we get here?

Origins of the Pandemic

Most experts agree that COVID-19 (Coronavirus) very likely originated from a ‘wet market’ (a live animal market) in Wuhan, China. According to a study published by the Chinese Medical Journal, gene-sequencing analysis1 strongly suggests that the virus originated from bats, and spread to humans through an intermediary species. 

COVID-19 is not too different from the other respiratory viruses we’ve seen in the past: genome analysis finds that COVID-19 shares 79% of its nucleotide identity with SARS-CoV, 51.8% with MERS-CoV, and 87.6-87.7% with another bat-related SARS-like Coronavirus (CoV).2 

The study also finds that “all human CoVs are zoonotic [originating from animals] as a distinguishing characteristic… These outbreaks have raised public health concerns of the potential for another novel zoonotic CoV.”2 

So, will COVID-like pandemics keep happening? Experts say yes. Studies show that animal exploitation is a key factor in the frequent transmission and spread of zoonotic viruses. Johnson et al (2020) writes:  

“To investigate drivers of virus spillover, we evaluated the number of viruses mammalian species have shared with humans. We discovered that the number of zoonotic viruses detected in mam- malian species scales positively with global species abundance, suggesting that virus transmission risk has been highest from animal species that have increased in abundance and even expanded their range by adapting to human-dominated landscapes. Domesticated species, primates and bats were identified as having more zoonotic viruses than other species. Among threatened wildlife species, those with population reductions owing to exploitation and loss of habitat shared more viruses with humans. Exploitation of wildlife through hunting and trade facilitates close contact between wildlife and humans, and our findings provide further evidence that exploitation, as well as anthropogenic activities that have caused losses in wildlife habitat quality, have increased opportunities for animal–human interactions and facilitated zoonotic disease transmission.”3

We’re living in an era known as Anthropocene, which means that climate change and biodiversity loss have already reached the planet’s limit. The Earth is thus “more vulnerable to destabilizing crises of comparable or greater magnitude” to COVID-19.4

In light of the pandemic, China has shut down its $74 billion wildlife-farming industry – there will be no buying, selling, or eating of wild animals in order to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.5

But it’s unfair to condemn Chinese wet markets without looking to the rest of the world. We all need to do better. Contemporary studies show that the 1918 influenza that killed 50-100 million people originated from a farm in Haskell County, Kansas, with “no evidence for the influenza’s origin in the Orient.”6 The reemergence of the virus in 2009 was also linked to pig trade between North America and Eurasia.7 

With animal exploitation being a pervasive issue throughout the world, pointing the finger at China isn’t helpful, and it only contributes to the systematic racism towards Asian people. We all need to do better to stop the widespread exploitation of animals that have contributed, and will continue to contribute, to zoonotic global pandemics like COVID-19. 

Environmental Effects of COVID-19

Medical Waste 

In Hubei Province, China, infectious medical waste increased 600% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,8 and other countries are facing similar issues. Managing this issue is not only an issue of environmental sustainability, but also public health. In areas that lack infrastructure to dispose of high amounts of medical waste, infectious medical supplies are overwhelming the waste stream and contaminating recyclable waste streams, as well as posing risks to waste management workers.9 Because these materials are both hazardous and non-biodegradable, this short-term problem could lead to long-term plastic pollution issues that harm wildlife ecosystems. 

Air Pollution

For those struggling to find a silver lining during these tough times, there are some benefits to quarantining. In March, NASA reports showed that decreases in transportation, industrial, and business activity have reduced NO2  levels by 30% in eastern and central China.10 Roads and transportation hubs are emptier, with domestic flights in mainland China dropping by 60-70%. As coal and oil industries have slowed down, COemissions in China have decreased by 25% compared to previous years.11

Image via Carbon Brief 

Unfortunately, however, the environmental benefits we enjoyed early in the pandemic are slowing to a halt. In April of 2020, daily global carbon emissions were down 17% compared to April of 2019, but by June they were only down 5% compared to last year. Desperate for an economic boost, US corporations, particularly the oil and gas industry,  have cashed in on government favors and regulatory rollbacks. During the pandemic, the current administration has suspended the enforcement of air and water pollution regulations, limited the state’s ability to block energy projects, and removed a requirement for environmental review and public input of new mines, pipelines, highways, and other projects.12 

Air pollution is also a key contributor in socioeconomic disparities in COVID deaths. A study conducted by Harvard University found that “an increase of only one µg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”13 (PM2.5 is a type of particle pollution that can lead to respiratory diseases.) And, the American Journal for Public Health found that for “PM of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden [of exposure] than did the overall population, and non-Whites had 1.28 times higher burden. Blacks, specifically, had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population.”14 These findings illustrate that minority and disadvantaged populations are significantly more at risk for COVID. As such, COVID isn’t just a public health risk — it’s an environmental justice issue.

Deforestation 

A surprising environmental consequence of COVID-19 is increased deforestation, particularly in the Amazon Rainforest. According to satellite data from the INPE space research agency, destruction in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon increased by 64% in April of 2020 compared to data from April of last year.15 With the pandemic as a distraction, it is easier for illegal loggers, miners, and ranchers to exploit the rainforest with little hindrance from law enforcement. Further, cleared vegetation is usually set on fire starting in July, and the thick smoke puts residents, especially indigenous populations of the Amazon, at higher risk for COVID.16

Harvard University also finds that the long-term effects of deforestation put us at risk for increased rates of emergent infectious diseases, like COVID, in the future: 

“Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions.”

The article continues to emphasize that the separation between public health and environmental policy is a “dangerous delusion” that prevents us from effectively handling diseases like COVID. Factors like animal agriculture, deforestation, and air pollution indeed play a role in global health. We’re already in the midst of the largest period of extInction since that of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – if we don’t address the underlying issues that threaten our society’s health, we could be seeing disastrous results.17

Footnotes

1  The whole genome sequence data has been deposited in the Genome Warehouse in National Genomics Data Center, Beijing Institute of Genomics (China National Center for Bioinformation), Chinese Academy of Sciences, under accession number GWHXXXX00000000 that is publicly accessible at https://bigd.big.ac.cn/gwh.

2 Ren, Li-Li; Wang, Ye-Ming; Wu, Zhi-Qiang; Xiang, Zi-Chun; Guo, Li; Xu, Teng; Jiang, Yong-Zhong; Xiong, Yan; Li, Yong-Jun; Li, Xing-Wang; Li, Hui; Fan, Guo-Hui; Gu, Xiao-Ying; Xiao, Yan; Gao, Hong; Xu, Jiu-Yang; Yang, Fan; Wang, Xin-Ming; Wu, Chao; Chen, Lan; Liu, Yi-Wei; Liu, Bo; Yang, Jian; Wang, Xiao-Rui; Dong, Jie; Li, Li; Huang, Chao-Lin; Zhao, Jian-Ping; Hu, Yi; Cheng, Zhen-Shun; Liu, Lin-Lin; Qian, Zhao-Hui; Qin, Chuan; Jin, Qi; Cao, Bin; Wang, Jian-Wei. “Identification of a novel coronavirus causing severe pneumonia in human: a descriptive study”. Chinese Medical Journal, vol. 133, no. 9, 5 May 2020, pp. 1015–1024., doi: 10.1097/CM9.0000000000000722 

3  Johnson, Christine K., Peta L. Hitchens, Pranav S. Pandit, Julie Rushmore, Tierra Smiley Evans, Cristin C.W. Young, and Megan M. Doyle. “Global Shifts in Mammalian Population Trends Reveal Key Predictors of Virus Spillover Risk.” Proceedings. Biological Sciences, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2736.

4  IGES. “Implications of COVID-19 for the Environment and Sustainability.” Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24951.

5  Woodward, Aylin. “China just banned the trade and consumption of wild animals. Experts think the coronavirus jumped from live animals to people at a market.” Business Insider, 25 February 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/china-bans-wildlife-trade-consumption-coronavirus-2020-2

6  Barry, John M. “The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications.” Journal of Translational Medicine, 20 January 2004. doi: 10.1186/1479-5876-2-3

7  CDC. “Origin of 2009 H1N1 Flu: Questions and Answers.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 November 2009. https://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/information_h1n1_virus_qa.htm

8  ADB. “Managing Infectious Medical Waste during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Asian Development Bank, April 2020. https://www.adb.org/publications/managing-medical-waste-covid19.

9   IGES. “Implications of COVID-19 for the Environment and Sustainability.” Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24951.

10  NASA. “Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China,” Earth Matters, NASA Earth Observatory, 1 January – 25 February 2020. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2020/03/05/how-the-coronavirus-is-and-is-not-affecting-the-environment/

11  Patel, Kasha. “How the Coronavirus Is (and Is Not) Affecting the Environment.” Earth Matters, NASA Earth Observatory, 5 March 2020. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2020/03/05/how-the-coronavirus-is-and-is-not-affecting-the-environment/

12  Gardiner, Beth. “Why COVID-19 will end up harming the environment.” National Geographic, 18 June 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/why-covid-19-will-end-up-harming-the-environment/#close.  

13  Wu, Xiao, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, and Francesca Dominici. “Exposure to Air Pollution and COVID-19 Mortality in the United States.” MedRxiv, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502.

14  Mikati, Ihab, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, and Jennifer Richmond-Bryant. “Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 4, April 2020, pp. 480-485. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297.   

15  “Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon surges, Bolsonaro readies troops.” Reuters, 8 May 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-environment/deforestation-in-brazils-amazon-surges-bolsonaro-readies-troops-idUSKBN22K1U1

16   Gardiner, Beth. “Why COVID-19 will end up harming the environment.” National Geographic, 18 June 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/06/why-covid-19-will-end-up-harming-the-environment/#close.  

 17 Bernstein, Aaron. “Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE.” C-CHANGE, Harvard T.H. Chan: School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/

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