‘We will see more outbreaks, it’s inevitable’: A warning from the world’s most famous virus hunter

Sarah Newey
Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance - EcoHealth Alliance
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Dr Peter Daszak has been collecting and analysing coronaviruses for decades. He knows batcaves and wet markets like no other. He tells the Telegraph why another pandemic is all but inevitable unless we invest now and prepare

You were part of the team that coined the term Disease X - would you describe this coronavirus as a ‘Disease X’?

Sars-CoV-2 is definitely the sort of virus that we thought about when discussing Disease X. It was never the scary sounding diseases that make you bleed from your eyes, like Ebola, that we were most worried about. They can’t hide. Covid-19 does exactly the opposite, it spreads silently and there’s a gap between catching it and exhibiting symptoms. That’s what makes it truly dangerous.

If we want to get ready for pandemics, it’s no good just looking at what's happened in the past – because all those things we know about that. The next pandemic may well be caused by something unknown, the ‘X’. That remains true today.

You’ve been working on coronaviruses for decades but many national pandemic plans were built around the threat of influenza – was that a mistake? 

 It's hard to say it was a mistake because flu is a big killer and a big threat, with the potential to become an enormous pandemic with a very high mortality rate.

But there is a perspective problem. Everybody working on emerging diseases kept saying that pandemic flu would be the ‘one in 100 year’ pandemic. But we’ve already had other big outbreaks – HIV/Aids has killed more than 30 million people and had hugely significant impacts on social structure and sexual behaviour across the planet.

So I think we do tend to focus too much on pandemic flu as the next ‘big one’. But equally we need to be careful [now] not to replicate the mistake with coronaviruses. In reality there are lots of other threats out there – let's not forget drug resistant microbes. We’ve got to keep a broad focus.

Virus hunters examine a bat - Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

The virus hunters at EcoHealth have helped to create a library of zoonotic pathogens. Why is this important? Does the risk outweigh the benefits?

We've catalogued emerging diseases in a database called the EIDR – emerging infectious disease repository – where we've got the data on the origins of every known emerging disease so you can analyse where they came from, and better predict the next one.

This is really important. It’s not grandiose to say that, if we had catalogued the majority of coronaviruses two decades ago and started work on vaccines – which could have been done – the benefit today would have been huge. Millions of people would not have been infected with Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of people would not be dead, and trillions of dollars would not have lost to our global economy.

The problem is that it's hard to convince people to fund a big project that would cost one or two billion dollars when these truly global pandemics are not common.

The big lesson to learn from this one is: we have to spend the money to properly prepare now. We estimate a nine to one return on investment, at least, if you reduce cases by just five per cent, and that's without including the cost of Covid. But I worry that we’re not going to change.

It’s said that spillover events are becoming more common as humans encroach on nature – but animals and people have always lived side by side. What’s changed?

Our ecological footprint is expanding exponentially, and that drives spillover from wildlife to people. Our global travel and trade networks facilitate rapid spread – Sars took two to three months to get out of China, this one took two weeks.

Internal travel and trade within China is also incredibly advanced compared to when Sars emerged: high speed rail networks; people trucking thousands of animals across these pathways from one market to another.

If you go back to many rural areas 100 years ago, people would have been eating bats or bushmeat. In rural China now people are still living right next to a bat cave, still using bat faeces to fertilise crops. People are probably getting infected at the same rate per capita as they were 100 years ago. The difference now is there are more people and more travel.

We did a serological survey of people living near bat caves in Yunnan Province a few years ago. Three per cent of them had antibodies to bat viruses. It’s a stretch, but if you took the whole population of the area, that would mean one to seven million people infected.

So we’re going to see more outbreaks, it’s inevitable. They might not look like this one, but there will be more.

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Wet markets have attracted a lot of bad press. What, if anything, makes them different from factory farms?

Wet markets are certainly a risk. They sell sorts of animals, from poultry to wildlife, in small spaces with crowds of humans – it’s a perfect breeding ground.

A modern, well run factory farm has a very different type of risk – something like influenza, which can take hold and spread rapidly in the dense population of animals and potentially escape. But there is also usually better biosecurity, as people don’t want to lose all their animals – and income.

You’ve also raised the alarm about wildlife and fur farms. Why?

We underestimate all of those industries. There are two sides: first of all farmers who breed wild animals for food, for instance bamboo rats, civets, porcupines, frogs, snakes – there’s a whole menagerie.

The reason they’re breeding them is that it’s super profitable. We went to one farm 10 years ago, and a pair of porcupines for breeding cost  $1,000. China actually promoted wildlife farming as a poverty alleviation programme in the 70s and 80s – and it’s worked.

But what you’ve got now is a lot of amateur farmers, who have converted old properties that are pretty unsecure from a disease point of view.

The farmers are moving between farms daily, they’re supplying restaurants, supplying the middlemen who then truck the animals to market in the big cities like Wuhan. It connects the rural areas where the bats with the coronaviruses are, right into the cities like Wuhan.

I think we underestimate the sheer size of that network and the dynamics within it – it’s enough to drive outbreaks.

Secondly, there’s fur farming, usually raccoon dogs. If you see people with fur trim around these nice ski jackets, it’s probably come from a Chinese fur farm. There's a sort of irony to it – you see wealthy people in the West, with a bit of fur trim, saying: “It’s disgusting, these wet markets in China”.

Consumption in the West drives a lot of the problems behind infectious diseases.

Do you think that we will ever know where Sars-Cov-2 came from – and does it matter?

It does matter, but we're never going to know 100 per cent for sure – it's very hard to definitively prove, without being there at the time.

In that space of uncertainty, conspiracy theories abound – for instance the idea it could have been bio-engineered. This is ridiculous, but it’s time consuming to fight these fires.

I think it will take a couple of years to track Sar-Cov-2 properly. We need to trace back the sorts of animals that were going into Wuhan’s wet market – and the people. It’s quite possible it was circulating on a farm for weeks or months before emerging in Wuhan.

Every time we've looked at the origins of the new disease in the past, we’ve found out it was actually around a lot longer than thought. Perhaps we will find it was just missed because, in most people, it just causes a cough – who in rural China doesn't have a cough every now and again?

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What does that mean for future prevention strategies?

Well let's say that we found out that the wet markets weren't the key issue. That the major source of the virus was actually it’s people who dig bat faeces out of caves and spread it on farms. That data is vital data to inform intelligent policy decisions, which will save lives.

Shutting wet markets is difficult and could drive them underground, making it harder to hear about the next disease until it’s too late. But shutting caves, blocking entrances, that can be done straight away.

Will the US funding cuts impact your work? What does that mean for your organisation?

We plan to do this tracing work for Sars-Cov-2 and we're actively seeking support to go to China, but the US terminating our contract early was really disappointing. We've heard from our colleagues in China that we’re welcome to continue our research, if we can get some funding to do it.

We’ve been working with these people for 15 years, looking into the origins of coronaviruses. We trust them and they trust us, and that’s incredibly important. But there is some concern that damage is done to those relationships because of global politics.

What do you think is driving the conspiracy theories we’ve seen over the last few months?

People buy into conspiracy theories because they’re convincing stories told by charismatic people with just enough science and fact to make them seem plausible. The truth also tends to be less interesting. In this case, people in China are exposed to bats, who harbour viruses. It’s a lot more exciting to blame scientists inside a top secret lab that’s blocked off with barbed wire even if what is going on behind those doors is actually pretty boring.

Do you think that our natural propensity to jump on conspiracy theories is being played on by politicians?

Clearly this is part of the politics now. Take the US. We're seeing conspiracy theories being elevated in a polarised press, to the point where politicians then use that to make policy decisions. Which is pretty frightening.

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You've been working to prevent pandemics for much of your career. What caught you by surprise with this one?

The first thing is the scale of the economic loss through the shutdown. Sars cause a huge economic impact for a disease that infected around 8,000 people and it killed about 800. We’ve seen now what happens when that level of impact is extrapolated globally.

I was also surprised at how well we did locking ourselves down. I remember publicly being doubtful of China’s lockdown measures in January, saying ‘that would never work in New York’. People were calling lockdown arcane, medieval, brutal. But it has worked.

The other thing is just how badly some countries have done - often those that have been telling the rest of the world how to do pandemic preparedness for many years. The US and UK are literally at the top of the league table for pandemic preparedness but failed, partly because of divisive, partisan politics.

But we’re all to blame – we talked about pandemics professionally, but we should have shouted louder. Some people did, but they were called scaremongerers, accused of hyping it up. Look at where we are now.

Who are your heroes and villains of the pandemic?

That's a tough one. There are some heroes. Like Andrew Cuomo, the New York state governor here, who’s done a superb job of bringing in mathematical modellers to get the best data. That’s how you manage a pandemic. 

Then there are people like Shi Zhengli in China, who has stuck through death threats and a complete disparaging of her character, just to do what she does: try to save lives.

And villains?

Well, there are too many to mention. But the people who lead the countries in the West with the highest death rates per capita, did a very very poor job.

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