The health crisis caused by Covid-19 is unusual in its suddenness and universality, but there is nothing to learn from it about human health. We already knew that humans were liable to such infectious diseases; much of our medical research and development over the last two centuries has been devoted to identifying and disabling the bacteria and viruses that cause them. Research into Covid-19 will differ only in the haste and internationalism which correspond with the irruption of the disease. More important then, because this is something that we haven’t even started to put right, is that Covid-19 is also a crisis in our relations with other animals or, rather, a flagrant symptom of it.
The pathway taken by the virus, from bats to pangolins to humans, has now been more or less confidently identified, and the particular setting for it, the notorious wet markets of Wuhan, have been prohibited together with other such markets in China (see this blog on 28 February). But as the Mirror newspaper reports, “multiple species are still being crammed together, slaughtered and sold, in filthy conditions, contaminated with blood and faeces, at countless markets in other Asian countries.” Live-animals markets even exist in New York, selling less exotic animals perhaps, but with the same crowding, on-site slaughtering, and consequent morally and physically squalid conditions. (Two petitions which you may like to sign on this subject are linked in the notes below.)
But aren’t even conventional slaughterhouses “contaminated with blood and faeces”? At any rate, the more mainstream forms of agriculture are not innocent by-standers in the Covid-19 story. An excellent piece by Laura Spinney in the Guardian (‘Is Factory Farming to Blame for the Coronavirus?’) uncovers their part in creating the conditions for that and other such animal-derived infections. Not just have the huge factory farms pushed the small farmers of Asia out of their traditional lands and into ‘specialist’ wild animal trading, working in the forest and other uncultivated lands where the animals have hitherto been relatively undisturbed. Such farms also create, on their own account, ideal virus-incubating conditions: that is, a target host of unnaturally crowded and unhealthy animals, with none of the genetic variety that can inhibit transmission. These conditions, says Spinney, “can result in the ratcheting up of the virus’s virulence. If it then spills over into humans, we are potentially in trouble.”
Among the products of such agriculture have been campylobacter, Q fever, hepatitis E, and various mutations of the influenza virus. As to this last case, industrial agriculture’s “strategic alliance with influenza” has been fully documented in a recent book by the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, whose title bluntly states the case: Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016).
The more general truth is that farms make diseases. Humans have been fashioning their illnesses out of animals, along with their food, clothes, motive power, amusement, and latterly lab equipment, for millennia. In his comprehensive history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter has to begin (on page 18 of 700) with the agricultural revolution of the neolithic period, because this was where the trouble began. Newly crowded human populations (more humans could now be fed from a given area of land) were living off force-crowded animals, and so creating the right conditions for “pathogens once exclusive to animals” to jump across to humans:
Many of the worst human diseases were created by proximity to animals. Cattle provided the pathogen pool with tuberculosis and viral poxes like smallpox. Pigs and ducks gave humans their influenzas, while horses brought rhinoviruses and hence the common cold . . . water polluted with animal faeces also spreads polio, cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis, whooping cough and diphtheria.
Smallpox, to take one especially baneful example, was a “ratcheting up” in human hosts of the cowpox virus. Edward Jenner, the man who pioneered the use of cowpox as a prophylactic against it, understood well in the 18th century the context which Porter describes. He stated it thus in his Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Cow Pox (1798):
The deviation of man from the state in which he was originally placed by nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgence of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement he has familiarized himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.
As I said, we haven’t started to put this problem right, but of course there’s been plenty of remedial action. Laura Spinney mentions avian flu virus H7N9, first found in humans in 2013; a vaccine was developed against this virus in poultry once it became a serious threat to the economics of chicken farming. Now a similar approach – that is, curing the result and not the cause – is being used against African swine fever, a disease which is not yet known to affect humans but has been killing millions of pigs in China before their profitable time (though it appears to be relatively harmless in the wild animals from which it came). A vaccine against it has been devised which, we’re encouraged to believe by a veterinary epidemiologist (that title itself tells a wretched story), justifies “guarded optimism”, although “more testing of safety and efficacy is needed.” [Science, 20 March]
Yes of course, it always is, and here more than ever, when we see research patching up the pathologies which research largely made possible in the first place, one is reminded of that scientist for all seasons, Dr Grant Swinger, alert to every new fashion and opportunity in big science and to the funds which lubricate it (he was the brilliant invention of the late Daniel Greenberg). Still, we certainly find ourselves in urgent need of Dr Swinger and his fellow-professionals at present, so let’s see how they’re getting on with the scourge of Covid-19.
Animal-research laboratories are of course being affected by the pandemic like any other work-place, except that they can’t simply be closed or even put on reduced hours, because there’s a population of animals to keep alive or not. We’re told that labs in the USA are “currently grappling with the best way to care for the millions of mice, monkeys, and other research animals they care for across the country”. One way to do this, of course, is to put them down – ‘take care of them’ in that sense – and a report in Science’s online news for 23 March does indeed announce that “Labs are euthanizing thousands of mice in response to coronavirus pandemic.”
There is no doubt great reluctance to resort to such measures, and one researcher calls the loss “heartbreaking, scientifically and emotionally”. The distress is surely sincere, but it illustrates the ethical non-sense inherent in animal research. (You may recall a similar cry of distress from farmers who lost cattle in the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak earlier this century.) For by way of mitigating the offence, the director of animal resources at Johns Hopkins University explains that many of these mice “would have been euthanized anyway, because, for example, they weren’t born with the genetic profile the lab needed for particular experiments.” It’s just a case of hurrying things up, of doing “two to three weeks’ worth of culling in the course of a single week”. The director himself is “assisting with much of the culling”. This is a reminder of something which the word “heartbreaking” tends to obscure, that killing animals, whether un-needed or at the end of their living usefulness, is a daily routine in laboratories. “Our top priority is animal welfare”, says another lab director, reporting on this crisis. It’s a very familiar claim, but it’s a pious untruth. A laboratory in which it was true would have to find homes for its animals and then close down.
Fortunately the great supplier to the world of GM mice, the Jackson Laboratory – familiarly ‘Jax’ – at Maine and elsewhere (see this blog on 3 July 2017) is not suffering similar heartbreak. Not only has it “not increased its culling” (the routine toll in the Jax labs must constitute a daily massacre), but the demand for ‘mouse models’ susceptible to Covid-19 has prompted “the Jax team” to undertake “a large-scale in vitro fertilization (IVF) program”, so that “very shortly, there’ll be thousands of these mice available to the scientific community.” Meanwhile, all other specialized mice are fully available. Incidentally, for anxious researchers who may be asking themselves “Can humanized mice (immunodeficient mice engrafted with human CD34+ hematopoietic stem cells) be infected with Coronavirus?”, the Jax FAQs section has a reassuring answer: “the chances . . . is [sic] extremely remote.” Well, that’s always been regarded as safe enough odds in the past.
There has been some suggestion that the present urgency may actually have benefited animals, by allowing researchers to conduct clinical trials of possible vaccines straight after in vitro studies, without the usual animal testing. The safety and effectiveness of this way of doing things will thereby have been clearly established. But is this really happening? As far as I can tell, it has applied only to the ‘repurposing’ of therapies already tested and approved in the conventional way for other conditions: for instance, as the journal Science reports, “drugs that have performed well in animal studies against the other two deadly coronaviruses, which cause SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)”. But in whatever way it’s being managed (and the Jax announcement shows that animals are certainly implicated in large numbers), a lot of hard and hurried work is being done to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
To find a vaccine, but to leave the root cause untouched. And this short-termism is reflected in the imagery which is commonly being used to describe our present plight. “Nous sommes en guerre” said President Macron several times in his eloquent and moving address to the French nation on 16 March. Other politicians have used the same imagery in sundry variations. Scientists too. The editor of Science calls for a grand collective effort on the pattern of the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atom bomb). Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently likened the co-operative endeavour for the nation’s health to the miscellany of ships which rescued the British army from Dunkirk.
All this is understandable, affecting, apt in its way. But it’s the wrong way, not so much because, as was recently argued in the Atlantic, you don’t win wars by skulking at home as we’re required to do at present, but because the attitude itself is mistaken. If there is an enemy in this case, it is we ourselves in our character as compulsive predators. A virus is no more an enemy than a tiger or a bear is an enemy, though all three can seriously harm us in some circumstances. Certain varieties of virus serve us well, for instance the ‘phages’ which can be used to disable some bacteria; others pursue their life-course (or life-like course, since viruses aren’t a self-sufficient life-form) in ways that are indeed capable, by chance, of killing us. The trick is to keep those, and their natural hosts, at a proper distance.
The situation is well understood in one of the earliest of all myths, the quest of the Babylonian King Gilgamesh to destroy the monster Humbaba in the far-distant Cedar Forest. Humbaba, with his “terrifying roar”, is spoken of and feared by the people as a monster, but he seems to do no pro-active harm at all. Simply being feared from a distance is his job. One translator of the epic, Stephen Mitchell, says “Humbaba has his appointed place in the divine order of things. He has specifically been commissioned to be monstrous by one of the great gods, because humans are not supposed to penetrate into the Cedar Forest and chop down its trees.” Or as Mitchell has Humbaba himself say, “I am the forest’s guardian. Enlil / Put me here to terrify men.” [pp.125, 31] It might be Covid-19 talking.
In so far as Gilgamesh gets wisdom from the disaster which his killing of Humbaba turns out to entail, it consists in returning to his own city, to his own proper sphere of life, and staying there. Something of this ancient lesson we may be able to learn from the present crisis, provided we see what sort of crisis it is: a health crisis just for the moment, but more importantly a long-term moral crisis habitually injuring us in ways like this until we at last put it (that is, put ourselves) right.
Notes and references:
Petitions against the live-animal markets of New York and elsewhere can be signed here: https://support.peta.org/page/17791/action/1?utm_source=PETA::E-Mail&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=0320::veg::PETA::E-Mail::PE%20URGENT%20Help%20Shut%20Down%20Live-Animal%20Markets%20WHO::::pads and https://support.peta.org/page/17888/action/1
The Mirror article, published on 26 March, can be read here: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/coronavirus-wet-markets-still-selling-21762902
The Guardian article, published on 28 March) is here: chttps://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/spotlight/is-factory-farming-to-blame-for-coronavirus/ar-BB11Qjbo?li=BBoPWjQ&ocid=mailsignout
Quotation on the agricultural revolution is from p.18 of Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: a Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, HarperCollins, 1997. Porter’s quotation from Jenner’s book is on p.19.
The Science news story about African swine fever is on p.1285, 20 March (vol.367). The online news about culling populations of lab mice can be read here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/it-s-heartbreaking-labs-are-euthanizing-thousands-mice-response-coronavirus-pandemic. The quotation about re-purposing drugs is from an article about Covid-19 research in the issue for 27 March, ‘Race to find Covid-19 treatments accelerates’, at p.1412. This also is the issue in which the editor makes the comparison with the Manhattan Project.
Announcements about Covid-19 by the Jackson Laboratory are on their web-site at https://www.jax.org/jax-mice-and-services/corona-virus-risk-mitigation. You will notice there Jax’s own plentiful use of the ‘top priority’ trope, an interesting study in itself.
The translation of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell is published by Profile Books, 2004. Quotations are from pp.31 and 125.
The print by Sue Coe was issued in 2007, so that in addition to its strength as activist art it illustrates the perennial nature of the harms we inherit by intruding improperly into the lives of other species. The dead animals notice is from a photograph taken by Brian Gunn of the International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals.