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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Is Environmental Destruction Responsible For Pandemics?

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environmental destruction

During our first Create Real Change (from home!) Facebook Live event, we were joined by Pierre Gilbert, a journalist at Le Vent Se Lève. We went on a deep-dive into how environmental destruction increases the risk of a pandemic. The fascinating conversation was an extension of a recently published article he’d written on the topic. You can watch the full discussion here, and read the original article in French here, which we’ve attempted to translate below (!), with permission from Pierre.

“The coronavirus pandemic is still spreading worldwide in an unpredictable way, creating a lot of anxiety. There are a lot of causes to this chaos; destruction of our environment, worldwide migrations, amoral capitalism from pharmaceutical companies, impoverishment of our health system to name a few. And it is crucial to understand them to prevent future crises. But the only solution we have to mitigate these huge challenges is real sustainability politics.

Environmental destruction increases the risk of a pandemic

The true source of coronavirus is still up for debate, just how did it enter the human population? Its origins possibly lie in a species of bat, eaten in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. Others claim it came from pangolins, a small endangered mammal hunted by poachers for its skin and meat. Either way, similar to Ebola, what we do know is that coronavirus was initially transmitted via wildlife.  

Since WWII, hundreds of bacteria and viruses (SARS, ebola, avian flu, Zika, HIV, coronavirus) have appeared in regions where they never previously existed. 60% of these pathogens come from animals. But if interactions between humans and wildlife have always existed, how can we explain the increase of these pandemics now?

In her article, Sonia Shah explains how the destruction of the environment has led to humans settling in spaces closer to animals. This closer proximity means the chances of a virus transmitting from an animal carrier to humans is higher. And while these viruses may not be harmful to animals, they can be to humans.

A 2017 Ebola study also concluded there are higher chances for viruses to spread in equatorial Africa where there is more deforestation. For example, by destroying the natural habitat of bats, we have seen them straying into human gardens in search of food. If one man eats a piece of fruit which has previously been nibbled on by a bat… you can imagine the rest.

Overall it is clear the destruction of natural habitats is a root cause of the 6th mass extinction which we are experiencing today. According to l’UICN, among the 82,954 species we know today, 23,928 are threatened. Among them, 13% are birds, 26% are mammals and 42% amphibians. Yet it is insect biomass loss which is greater and eight times faster than that of other animal species. In Western Europe, 75% of insects have been lost in 30 years. However, it is these populations of abundant wildlife that prevent parasites carrying viruses, such as mosquitos or ticks, to reproduce. According to studies carried out in 12 countries, mosquitos are two times less numerous in forested zones than in deforested ones [1].

Hence, if we want to limit the propagation of pathogens, we have to leave nature to build its biological barriers. In terms of policies, this needs to be materialised through a sustainability transition based on reforestation. A study by the Rousseau Institute explains how to get rid of pesticides entirely in less than 10 years. The fight against deforestation should be a priority. More than 80% of deforestation is aimed at agricultural exports for the meat industry, among other things. If they want to limit the number of pandemics, governments should then fight against mass farming and favour local breeding integrated in regenerative agriculture.

Only governments could impose such orientation in line with the will of limiting future risks of pandemics. But we should see other aspects too. In developing countries, deforestation is also happening in order to get wood to heat households and for cooking. This should be coupled with policies to electrify cities and decrease reliance on wood usage, through things such as solar ovens or electrical heat. This needs to be a joint effort between developing and developed countries. 

Climate change increases health risks too

Climate change impacts our weakness towards pathogens. First of all, with temperatures increasing, water cycles are all over the place. With 1.1-degree celsius increase (compared to pre-industrial level), water evaporation is 7% higher than normal, which leads to more droughts and heavy rains. The combination of both leads to harder soils that are not easily penetrated, increasing the likelihood of stagnating water. These are ideal conditions for cholera development, for instance. Mosquitos are also increasing in stagnant waters. 

The anopheles – a mosquito species from Egypt and main malaria carrier – are also increasing because of climate change. The WHO believes that CC will lead to 60,000 more deaths due to malaria every year between 2030 and 2050. That’s a 15% increase compared to today. The tiger mosquito, which carries more than 20 dangerous viruses (including Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever is also terrible) is on the increase. In 2050, it’s said that 2.4 billion individuals will be living nearby tiger mosquitoes or in its space of reproduction. 

The permafrost melt in the Arctic circle could also free ice from dangerous forgotten pathogens such as anthrax or Spanish flu which killed more people than during WWI with more than 50 million victims. The increase of severe events such as hurricanes and floods is weakening human communities by destroying infrastructures and disorganising supply chains. Climate migrations (which the UN predicts could be between 250 million and 1 billion refugees in 2050) could facilitate the propagation of pathogens.

This is why the fight against climate change and pandemics have to go hand in hand. Fossil fuels are responsible for 71% of emissions, causing climate change, and beyond air pollution, we just explained how this also impacts our vulnerability towards pathogens. But this destructive logic also comes with another destruction – that of our human bodies.

Our immune systems are getting weaker

We could not survive without the kgs of macrobiotics we have in our intestines. They help us to transform essential nutrients in our food. They pre digest stuff for us, and our body is the keeper of this symbiosis by maintaining a neutral environment. Within our intestines, there are almost 200 million neurons which ensure the mechanism ticks along (which is, incidentally, the same amount of neurons in a dog’s brain). Our health is linked to our microbial diversity. 

But during the past 40 years, the diversity within our intestines has decreased, the same as for natures biodiversity. These are conclusions from Joel Dore and his team at INRA, one of the most prominent French specialists of intestinal macrobiotics. One reason comes from the impoverishment of nutrients that cannot provide the substance to our microbes. And this is due to pesticides which boost the growth of plants without providing nutrients. On another note, our food is full of antibiotics which indifferently kill our auxiliary bacteria. 

Antibiotics have saved millions of lives. The discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming was a revelation. But even he at the time expressed concern over the development of resistances resulting from excessive use of this medicine. When we use one type of antibiotic, we only survive and multiply the bacterias which have a defence against this molecule. Today, we observe with anxiety the multiplication of bacterias which are resisting and multi-resisting. 

More than half of the antibiotics produced worldwide are intended for animals. Without antibiotics, there would be no factory farming because infections would spread too quickly. The pharmaceutical lobbies have always been very powerful. In the United States, which uses far more antibiotics than in the European Union, the government of Jimmy Carter proposed in 1976 to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture. Members of Congress, funded by the food lobbies, strongly opposed any such measure and it proved unsuccessful. Today in the United States, 80% of the production of antibiotics – the same as those administered to humans – is for breeding. With the various free trade agreements signed by the European Union, we massively import American meat, to the detriment of our bacterial resilience.

According to WHO estimates, around 700,000 people die each year worldwide from antibiotic-resistant infections, including 25,000 in Europe and probably three times that in India alone. More than 90% of our antibiotics leave Chinese or Indian factories, some of the effluents of which end up in the environment, creating centres of antimicrobial resistance capable of spreading worldwide. A phenomenon which is globally accentuated by climate change: studies have shown that there is a link between the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and a warmer climate.

Bacteria and viruses should not be confused (on which antibiotics are ineffective), and the link between the two should not be minimised: an organism weakened by its vulnerability to certain bacteria is much more vulnerable to attack by viruses. Similarly, the proliferation of endocrine disruptors, which disrupt the immune system, increases the potential severity of epidemics.

Health and climate are trapped with the same irrationality

There is no political ecology without a holistic view of systems and their interactions. The rise of capitalist productivism was enabled by the phenomenal energy released by fossil fuels. The raw power of this energy – 1 litre of oil contains as much energy as 10 workers working a full day – has allowed the industry to intrude everywhere to replace, with chemistry, previously natural and gratuitous symbiosis. We have thus replaced the nutrient supplies between plants and animals with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Likewise, we have replaced the interactions between the diversity of natural microbes and our immune systems with drugs, mostly from the chemical industry. In short, natural cycles have been shattered to intrude on merchandise.

As petroleum derivatives and chemical drugs replace natural balances, they collapse. To compensate, we always need more petroleum and medicinal inputs. This is the vicious cycle of dependency, the sole beneficiary of which is the market. If the oil is removed, agricultural yields collapse suddenly, before rising a few years later as natural cycles are rebuilt. It’s the same with drugs: if antibiotics are removed all of a sudden, organisms become hyper vulnerable, before microbial, macrobiotic biodiversity strengthens and protects us again from most pathogens.

The challenge of a fundamentally ecological policy is to rapidly reinforce natural cycles, so as to avoid the major shocks that would constitute the disappearance of oil, or conventional drugs. For this, in the health field, we need a comprehensive policy aimed at reconciling prevention and care, by organising a progressive decrease in certain chemical molecules. Suffice to say that it does not necessarily go in the direction of private laboratories, whose goal is to sell a maximum of drugs.

A completely deregulated pharmaceutical sector unable to anticipate risks

The pharmaceutical community is certainly one of the most caricatured in the race for profit. While 800 antihypertensives and anticancer drugs – high value-added drugs – are currently the subject of clinical research, only 28 antibiotics are under study, of which at most two will be marketed [2]. Developing a new antibiotic molecule takes 10 to 15 years of research and costs USD$1 billion. And there is no return on investment, because, after five years, 20% of bacteria will be resistant to this new antibiotic. It is for this reason that most pharmaceutical companies have simply abandoned R&D in this area. The last new class of antibiotics launched on the market dates from 1984.

Our pharmaceutical companies have chosen greed rather than fulfilling their collective security mission. In 2019, the Sanofi laboratory was, for example, the second distributor of dividends in France, behind Total and ahead of BNP Paribas. Research and development, which should make up the bulk of these companies’ investments in finding new remedies, has been cut short. Often, it focuses on finding new “outlets” for existing molecules, to maximise return on investment. This sometimes results in dramas, such as that of the famous Médiator from the Servier laboratory, a molecule initially developed for overweight people with type 2 diabetes, but widely prescribed as an appetite suppressant with the help of management. Yet the drug would have led to the death of 1,000 to 2,000 people in France due to its increased risk of heart valve disease.

More fundamentally, by racing for dividends rather than deploying effective R&D, laboratories have cut themselves off from the means to react quickly in the event of a new risk, such as the coronavirus. For its part, public research, attached to the various universities and teaching hospitals, suffers from constant budget cuts and unfortunately amounts to little.

Even more worrisome in the short term is the supply of drugs and basic protection in store for us. In fact, French pharmaceutical laboratories have outsourced most of their production of generic drugs, to keep on our territory only the production of molecules with high added value. 80% of all active substances are manufactured outside European territory, mainly in India and Asia, compared to 20% thirty years ago [3].

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) admits that “the coronavirus epidemic could affect the manufacturing capacity and the stability of the supply of the active ingredients in medicines due to the closure of factories and transport networks which could lead to a worldwide drug shortage”, even if at this stage the AEM believes that this is not yet the case. For their part, the American authorities indicated that they had identified the first case of a shortage of drugs directly linked to the coronavirus crisis, the manufacturer concerned being unable to produce due to the lack of an active pharmaceutical ingredient.

For all of these reasons, there can be no coherent political response to this crisis without mentioning the necessary creation of a public centre for medicines. The latter will have to articulate the revival of public R&D and the recasting of the activity of private laboratories in a national security strategy. For that, more than money, it takes political courage and the will to confront lobbies and the European Commissioner for Competition. Such a public centre would indeed be an excellent financial operation for the State, whose social security would no longer have to reimburse drugs at prices infinitely higher than their cost of manufacture. The pharmaceutical sector is a highly strategic sector which cannot be taken hostage by private interests. There is an urgent need to rebuild national drug chains before the know-how has completely disappeared.

Zero pandemic risk doesn’t exist, but an ecological protection policy can reduce the risks

For all the reasons explained, only the camp of political ecology can oppose a coherent response in the event of pandemics boosted by neoliberalism. A simple withdrawal is not only not a solution because the viruses will always cross the borders as long as the goods, the men and the animals cross them, but it is of a dramatic inconsistency for a country like France. Its diplomatic and symbolic weight must be put entirely at the service of this transition, and the strengthening of multilateralism. Multilateralism, notably through WHO, is our best weapon against pandemic risk. A green and universalist France should weigh to rearm these tools. This is why neither the neoliberals nor the far right can rise to this kind of challenge. The camp of social ecology can be, but assuming to want to give itself the means, that is to say, to cover a public power worthy of the name, a strong state capable of mastering its borders and break free from shackles.

In short, the coronavirus crisis, like any crisis, must mark a before and an after. The next step is to realise that it is necessary to plan a real health resilience, therefore ecological, within a universalist and anti-liberal project. We must fight against the great move of the world, restore order where neoliberalism has slashed the protective membranes, allowing viruses to penetrate deep into our societies.


[1] Katarina Zimmer, « Deforestation tied to changes in disease dynamics », The Scientist, New York, 29 janvier 2019.

[2] « Antibiotique, la fin du miracle », Documentaire Arte le 12 mars 2019

[3] Académie Nationale De Pharmacie : « Médicaments : ruptures de stock, ruptures d’approvisionnement » https://www.acadpharm.org/dos_public/Recommandations_ruptures_de_stocks_et_appro_VF_2013.04.24.pdf


Original article by Pierre Gilbert

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