Monday, March 23, 2020

Counter-response (2020)

From the World Socialist Party of the United States website
The following is Stephen Shenfield's counter-response to Paddy Shannon's response to The coronavirus, bats, and deforestation article.
My account of the nature of coronaviruses and their probable origin in bats was based on a number of recent articles by specialists in relevant scientific disciplines, mainly virology and epidemiology. I made the mistake of naming only one such source – Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading. For those who wish to explore the topic further, the other specialists on whom I relied were: Tara C. Smith, who teaches epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health and whose article ‘The Animal Origins of Coronavirus and Flu’ was published in Quanta Magazine on February 25; and two teams of Chinese researchers, mostly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose articles in the March 2019 issue of National Review of Microbiology (here) and in Nature 579 (2/3/20) (here) also provide further references.

The works of William H. McNeill and Jared Diamond do not provide much of an introduction to epidemiology. Neither is a specialist in epidemiology or in any other scientific discipline. They are historians (Diamond may also be considered an anthropologist) with an amateur interest in epidemiology. For a real introduction to epidemiology, see the text by Caroline Macera and her co-authors

Turning to substance, there is a process of mutual adaptation of viruses and their animal or human hosts. The danger to the host arises when the virus adapts to the host faster than the host adapts to the virus. This is a temporary situation: the danger passes once the host has caught up, as seems to have happened with Ebola. However, a virus that is new to a specific host can wreak havoc in the period before that host successfully adapts, as shown by the tragic fate of the aboriginal people of the New World. 

As for the argument about the danger inherent in excessively rapid human expansion into hitherto untapped areas of the natural world, I first encountered it years ago in a book by an epidemiologist that I have not managed to track down. I still find it persuasive. 

It is not particularly dangerous if the boundary between tapped and untapped areas shifts gradually, giving people enough time to adapt to the unfamiliar bacteria and viruses encountered in the newly exploited areas. However, if the boundary shifts too fast then humans will indeed be exposed to and defenseless against the ‘new’ pathogens. 

Historical experience is of limited relevance to the current situation because in the past the boundary was relatively stable and now it is not. This partly a result of the capitalist drive for profit, partly also a result of the pressure of rapidly growing human populations (in Africa, for instance).  

I should add that rapid human expansion is not the only likely source of unknown diseases. It may not even be the main such source. I am especially concerned about the reactivation of long-dormant bacteria and viruses from earlier ages frozen in the permafrost as the ice melts. See, for instance, here

I agree that there are many other valid reasons to preserve the rainforest, some of them even more important than the threat of pandemics. But it is not essential for an article devoted to one specific reason to indicate all the others.

All socialists, of course, will agree with Comrade Paddy Shannon’s last paragraph.
Stephen Shenfield

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