Imagine how unlucky a person has to be to live through the Spanish Flu Pandemic of the 1920s, the Avian Flu Pandemic of the 1950s and now, the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. Facing an overwhelming global sickness three times in one lifetime is almost unfair! Unfortunately, for many, the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 might be the first of many more outbreaks to come in the future.
Most pandemics and epidemics spring out of extraordinary circumstances—which is what makes them so rare. For example, COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus transmitted to humans from bats, traced back to wet markets in rural China. The pandemics of the future are likely to come from even more improbable circumstances, likely revolving around climate change.
Microbes from a bygone era
When most people think of climate change, they’re thinking about the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. What they’re not thinking about are the frozen microbes trapped within that ice that are thousands of years old. As the ice melts, these pathogens flow back into waterways and into our world. Any one of them could be responsible for the next pandemic.
There’s already evidence of this phenomenon happening in polar regions of the world. Take Yamal disease, for example. Yamal disease is the term for anthrax poisoning specific to a region in Siberia. The anthrax is a strain from a bygone era, preserved in a dead reindeer carcass that was unfrozen and thawed due to climate change. Unthawed, the bacteria proliferated in the soil, where it was picked up by other nearby reindeer and even local people.
The outbreak was eventually contained, but is a keen reminder of just how easily old pathogens can gain a new footing with climate change.
An even more dangerous example shows how quickly old pandemics can resurface and resume terrorizing the world. A woman whose body was preserved by the Alaskan permafrost was unearthed after 30 years only for scientists to discover the presence of the Spanish Flu virus in her corpse. Even more alarming, the virus was so well-preserved that scientists were able to sequence the virus’ RNA strain in its entirety! While this helped us study the disease, it nonetheless shows the hardiness of viruses when preserved.
A rise in zoonotic epidemics
Many of history’s epidemics and pandemics have come on the heels of animal transmission. There’s a reason we’ve had Swine Flu, Avian Flu and several other aptly-named outbreaks through the years. Climate change could usher in a whole new wave of these animal-borne illnesses.
For starters, climate change is displacing many animals from their natural habitats, increasing the number of interactions they have with other animals and human populations. This forced intermingling can easily give way to new disease as pathogens jump from one animal species to the next. The best example of this is something like a tick or mosquito, which may carry a blood-borne pathogen from animal to animal and finally to a human, where it manifests as a serious new illness.
There’s also the prospect of microbial diseases. As climate change forces animals into new behavior patterns, they may develop tendencies to carry new microbes. Think of a bat that’s displaced from its midwestern habitat to a subtropical one, where it feasts on new insects causing it to produce new saliva microbes. When that bat is eaten by a predator, there’s a chance for new disease to spring forth due to the new proteins present in the bat’s saliva. Once again, we’re a hop, skip and jump away from a new epidemic or pandemic.
New waves of known illness
Don’t forget about diseases we already know about that have the potential to become the next pandemic! We’ve already seen the seriousness of diseases like Ebola, Zika, SARS and many others. And while there have been pockets of these illnesses before, we haven’t yet faced a true explosion from these illnesses. Climate change could pave the way for one in the future.
From crop shortages to human migration patterns, there’s a staggering potential for any number of diseases to blossom into a full-blown epidemic as they evolve in the future. Governments around the world have already preached about the potential for even innocuous illnesses to become rampant in the wake of climate change.
While we’re fortunate enough to have vaccines for many of the most serious illnesses in human history, there are still many more we’re unequipped to deal with—and even more we still haven’t identified. It’s important for us to do what we can to prevent the next pandemic. It starts with climate change.
Preventing climate change can significantly reduce our chances of instigating a pandemic in the near future. The rest is up to science and governments around the world to fund the identification and vaccine development for diseases with the potential to spawn into the next major global outbreak.