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Stanford researchers explain how humanity has ‘engineered a world ripe for pandemics’

Josie Garthwaite, STANFORD NEWS

A pandemic can strike at any time. It takes little more than the right roll of genetic dice in a virus circulating among animals, followed by a chance encounter with a person or some go-between species, like pigs or mosquitoes. But as the new coronavirus whips around the world with a speed matched by few of the infectious diseases that have emerged in modern times, it poses the question: Why now?

According to Stanford biological anthropologist James Holland Jones, we have always had spillover events, in which disease jumps from animals to people. “What’s different now is that a spillover in one part of the world can have major consequences for the rest of the world,” he said. “We have engineered a world ripe for pandemics.”

Central to this vulnerability is the fact that our species moves around the world so much, and so quickly – whether for business, leisure, safety, education, economic necessity or other reasons. Many diseases are able to move right along with us. In fact, one of the most successful indicators of where pathogens will spread is the number of flight connections between cities, said Stanford biology Professor Erin Mordecai, who studies how climate, species interactions and global change influence infectious disease dynamics in both humans and natural ecosystems.

All this interconnectedness is particularly problematic with a disease like COVID-19, which can be transmitted by people who are not experiencing symptoms. “This disease is really nasty from a control standpoint,” said Mordecai, an assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “If you don’t know you’re sick, you might get on the plane and shed virus everywhere.”

An engineered world

It’s not only our highly mobile lifestyles that are helping give pandemics a runway to spread around the globe. It’s also the way we crowd together in increasingly dense cities, interact with wildlife and alter the natural world.
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