«We already had a vaccine for Coronavirus, and we’ve killed it»

Fernando Valladares’ premise is that the virus is a part of the ecosystem. He warns it may be a prelude to what is coming to us if we do not change our relationship with nature


April 28, 2020 05:00

Fernando Valladares works at the CSIC (the Spanish National Research Council). He graduated 30 years ago [Biology] and was awarded the extraordinary course prize, and got his PhD [Biological Sciences] with the same prize. His research work addresses the impacts of climate changes in terrestrial ecosystems, and during the pandemic he has launched a series of remarkably striking videos and articles, unusual for the press. He has a macro-scale point of view—his premise is that the virus is part of the ecosystem. He maintains that the coronavirus may be a preface to what is coming to us if we do not change our relationship with nature substantially.

Q. I have a feeling that in the past few years some new diseases have multiplied. The SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika… Do we now have more information or are there actually more potentially dangerous outbreaks?

A. There is more information and greater capacity to detect pathogens, but there are many more outbreaks than the ones we had 30 years ago. After this, there is a combination of factors. The degradation of ecosystems is a fundamental one—a source of problems at several scales. In addition to this, globalization, which makes pathogens travel and infect at a record speed. Neither globalization is the same as 30 years ago, nor is the world’s population or the state of nature. A zoonosis which then could be local is not anymore at a dramatic speed.

Q. What is a zoonosis?

A. A zoonosis is a human infection originating in an animal, mediated by a pathogen which could be bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. If a zoonosis is produced in a Chinese city, as it has happened, globalization makes this outbreak potentially uncontrollable, unless drastic measures are taken at high speed. At global scale, it is quite difficult. The government of the relevant country may hide it or react too late… There are several factors today for a given zoonosis to have catastrophic consequences across the world.

Q. Do we already know what the journey of the coronavirus has been from the animal kingdom to us?

A. According to scientific literature, chances are today that the virus originated in bats. It has been there for a long time and it may have evolved. The specific coronavirus that is affecting us is not exactly the same, it has mutated into other ‘bridge’ species. It is not known exactly how many and which. It’s an exciting as well as difficult research, because you study the phylogenetics and you make a list of suspects, but later you have to come up with a tangible example which contains the virus.

Q. In this respect, we speak about the pangolin as the ‘perpetrator’, but I sense this is a wrong picture, because within that ‘guilt’ human action with those animals is essential. Am I wrong?

A. No, of course not. It is precisely that. Firstly, the one seeking contact with the animal was not the animal itself. Secondly, in many cases, the animal is an infectious agent because we messed with it.

Q. Is the virus part of the ecosystem?

A. Yes. We need to stress that viruses and pathogens are everywhere. They are in the brick on my doorstep, in a forestry development, in our pets. We will never succeed in killing them all: we cannot kill all the bats, pangolins… bricks! Viruses are there. What matters is the amount, and whether we are increasing the possibilities that new pathogens, for which our immune system is not prepared, suddenly come into play. If it is not this virus, there will be more. It’s not a matter of ‘dead dogs don’t bite’, because something else will come up, and cats or mice will transport it. Demonizing critters will take us nowhere.

Q. It may sound paradoxical, but the more animal species, the less probabilities of animals transmitting a virus?

A. Yes. What we need is a lot of critters. It is the paradigm shift what I wish to insist upon. We regard jungles and other wild natural landscapes with an age-old fear. We think of them as dangerous to humans because of the disease. That may be the case, true: you may catch a rare pathogen there, but that would be a very local circumstance. However, this process begins becoming dangerous to humankind when the contact increases in a massive way. It is not the same having a small group of researches going to the jungle than groups of tourists on a bus. All these activities bring along a degradation of the habitat. If you have to build a road to get there, you start losing species along the way. And here is where the mechanisms I study work: biodiversity, a species-rich system, protects us; its degradation threatens us.

Q. How exactly does biodiversity protects us?

A. When there are many different species, large and small animals, carnivores and herbivores, mammals and reptiles, etc. competitive relationships are established: predator and prey, parasitism, etcetera. This diversity of interactions makes some species control others and regulate their population. Well, now we are in a scenario where we don’t know how many hosts this virus has. But we do know that in a species-rich system no host favorable for the virus is going to experience a demographic explosion, because its population is controlled by others. In contrast, if species disappear, it may occur a terrible chance of increasing the demographics of a species which is hosting a pathogen potentially bad for us. So the first level where biodiversity protects us is this—groups of species controlling groups of species in a balance.

Q. Is that what you called ‘diluting the viral load’?

A. It has to do with it, but it’s different. There are several species, potential vectors, but you have to think that the virus is going to thrive the same in all the species. In some, where the virus will not do so well, there is a firewall effect. This has been proven with evidence. I always use the example of the Lyme disease, a bacterium, in the east coast of North America. This disease is transmitted by ticks, but for this to happen they need to suck blood from a mammal for some time. Among the animals that hosted the bacteria and this passed it to the tick, which in turn passed it to us, were possums and mice. Well, mice have a very high viral load, whereas possums have a very low load. When biodiversity is distributed among mice and possums, the medium pathogen load in the ticks infesting both species is lower than when possums disappear because we destroyed their natural habitat. From that moment on, mice would transmit the Lyme disease in a much more direct and effect manner. And then there is no ‘dilution of the viral load’, and we are in a new outbreak with high impact on humans.

Q. How do the sanitary conditions of, for instance, a marketplace affect the capacity for transmission of an animal they sell there?

A. Animals go through the same things we do. If they lock you up in a cage, transport you 800 kilometers and feed you poorly, cram you and keep you like that for several days until they finally sell you to be eaten, you have spent some days stressed and your immune system decreases, thus your viral load increases. This happens not only with the coronavirus. I always use the example of the herpes zoster infection: a virus we have and when the immune system is doing well we do not even notice, but as soon as it decreases and our viral load increases, the symptoms develop and we become infectious organisms. This happens with animals that are kept under poor sanitary conditions: not only ‘poor little things’, they become biological time bombs.

Q. Where are these bombs installed?

A. We have a fatal combination both in artificial systems, such as a marketplace or a livestock farm—as we experienced during the bird flu and the swine fever—, and in nature, when the ecosystems are damaged. If the ecosystem works well, each individual, with their own pathogen background, is well. But the more stressing elements, the greater the increase of their viral load.

Q. Is global warming linked with the fact that there are more diseases affecting humans in the past few years?

A. Not only global warming, but also the destruction of the ecosystems caused by different human activities. New pathogens emerge, for instance, with the loss of ice. When glaciers and the permafrost melt we see new viruses—which were perfectly frozen—circulating again. Some of these viruses have a potential to affect us. Many of them are completely unknown for science, and we have no idea what is their function. But there is certainly a risk.

Q. How can we tackle those upcoming pandemics?

A. The best protection is nature. It is the best vaccine and we’ve killed it. I cannot stress this often enough: nature performs and integrated protection. Not like it is perfect, but it is a broad-spectrum protection, it’s not costly, it’s sustainable, and performs many other functions. Nature is on call 24/7. The services it provides to maintain the physical, chemical and biological conditions reducing the viral load—so the zoonosis’ risks are kept small—are priceless. From the bio-literature and scientific knowledge, we are recovering pieces that allow us to know exactly how this protection works, but we already know it’s real.

Q. There are people thinking the virus was created in a laboratory—that is is man-made.

A. There are deniers for everything. Just this morning I read some things on Twitter which made me ashamed and worried, because they keep looking for a conspiracy theory of the Chinese time and again—that they created this in one of their labs, etc. I don’t know, as a scientist, how to stop these narrow-minded, paranoid conspiracy theories. We know the virus is of natural origin. It hasn’t been manipulated.

Q. Besides the disappearance of ‘firewall species’, you also point out the dangers of desertification in the expansion of epidemics for other reasons.

A. Yes. In the desert dust and in the polluted atmosphere, many pathogens hold longer and travel further. With this I don’t mean that desert dust is a very dangerous means of infection, but they are small factors that, combined, increase the generalized viral load. One of the important notions we need to make very clear is that infection, with the virus, is not a matter of yes or no. If a virus comes to you right now you won’t even know it. But if one hundred million viruses come to you, your immune system collapses. This is why the notion of the viral load is so important. Well, within the polluted air or in the desert dust, viruses stay suspended more hours. Then, if your cousin is sick and she coughs, and you breathe a polluted atmosphere, at the end of the day the viral load you have received through different means is greater, and the probabilities of a virus reaching your immune system when defenses are low, or a new way into your body, increase.

Q. Besides, as I have learned, pollution also lowers the defenses in cases of a respiratory epidemic.

A. Of course. The same applies to the haze and the desert dust. It predisposes you to a grave respiratory illness. From an ecology perspective, the message is usually this: problems are not simple, they have many causes and there are many factors. As there are many animals carrying the virus and ways to reach it, there are also many factors that can amplify or reduce it. And it is here that I send this message—that a well-functioning nature, with species-rich ecosystems and processes, is the best barrier against pathogens.

Q. However, stopping certain processes of environmental degradation would mean losing a lot of money, wouldn’t it?

A. When it comes to estimating natural processes, we usually put a wrong price. For example, we put a price to the timber contained in a forest, or to the pollination by bees. But who sets a price to the protective function in the face of the coronavirus pandemic? No one is in the position to set a price on that, but we now know that it would have been so much money we wouldn’t have been able pay for it. The protective function of nature shields us against viruses like this and many others. We will develop a vaccine and fantastic drugs that alleviate the symptoms, but that will work for this virus. Another one will come tomorrow.

Q. Under better natural conditions, could the coronavirus still existed without us knowing?

A. Exactly. Every virus, bacteria, etc. is part of the ecosystem. If they didn’t affect us before, or if it never affects us, is in part because the ecosystems are balanced. The coronavirus could have still existed in the animal realm without us realizing, if it were not for a human action that has forced the zoonosis. It is like entering a jungle and then complain that a jaguar ate you, not realizing that you, with your behavior, is the one who altered the balance in the ecosystem and offered the jaguar a source of unexpected nutrition.

Q. It is fascinating that the virus isn’t even really alive.

A. Yes, viruses are fascinating elements. They are there, everywhere, on the surfaces we think are clean. They have a great capacity to mutate, and they are really no more than pieces of information. Without a reader to which to connect (the cell), they are neither organisms, nor complete living beings. They do nothing by themselves. And they will be there and have been forever. We need to learn to live with them. Some of us will suffer illnesses. Let’s try to be as few as possible. But we have to emphasize that physicians only hold the key to one of the doors, and there are many doors here. As they say in the United Nations, the entire planet has only one health. If we cause some damage at one point, it is not insane to think that we are going to suffer some damage at another point.

Q. Epidemiologists have complained a lot that they have not been heard.

A. And they are right to do so. They have been crying in the wilderness. We emphasize a lot on washing our hands, but there is a fundamental previous step: washing the hands of the environment. Now, when we use gloves or masks, we do not know exactly where the virus is; our protection is rudimentary, probabilistic. By contrast, a functional nature, where the global viral load is at acceptable levels for us and for all the intermediate organisms dealing with these viruses, protection is huge.

Q. Is it a mistake to think these rare diseases come from exotic animals?

A. Definitely! An article has been published which revises mammals on Earth, and telling which ones have more viruses and pathogens; and what is ironic and sad is that we surround ourselves precisely with these species. There are 80 or 100 species which get used to degraded or semi-degraded habitats, with strong human influence, and which are full of pathogens. There’s a lot of work to be done out there. It is good for us to have a lot of everything; not to have a lot of a few species. When certain animals are the only ones left, if they don’t do well, things go bad for all of us. Instead, if there are alternative species, the pathogen control function is not totally lost even if, for instance, the wild boar isn’t doing well. And this is the message we should be learning and applying in this pandemic.

Q. These days I go out to take out the trash and Barcelona smells like the countryside. I see on the Internet images of fawns in the streets of Burgos, dolphins in the Malaga seaport, and my friends from Madrid tell me the mountains seem to be right next door. Pleasant as it sounds, wouldn’t it be instilling a wrong idea of nature’s capacity to restore itself?

A. We are so short of good news that I wouldn’t presume to spoil the party. Those images have a reading which is actually irrefutable—nature responds, it has an amazing capacity. Unfortunately, one or two months of confinement will not solve the erosion, desertification, loss of species or climate change. In fact, the species that venture into the cities are the first wave, the most adaptable and opportunistic. Nowadays the cities are witnessing blackbirds, robins… Well, that’s not bad at all. If we start seeing nightingales or stonechats, then things would get more interesting. It is not the same to see a boar in the street than a weasel. A weasel tells you the ecosystem has recovered much more than a boar.

Q. Will global warming cause greater damage than this virus?

A. Yes. Check the economic, social and psychological implications of this little imbalance. Well, this is a rehearsal. If you remember the fearsome wildfires in Australia, that was another rehearsal: it was an image of the future, a glance at the fire phenomenon in climate scenarios as the ones waiting in several parts of the world. That was like watching the Australian laboratory of what may become regular in a matter of 15 years. And this pandemic, of which more will come, also was a rehearsal.

Q. Won’t technology save us?

A. Nature is the most cutting-edge technology there is. Whenever nature is not working well, when we push the boundaries of our resource exploitation, when these phenomena of environmental footprint and degradation build up, these things occur. We push forward thinking that technology and wealth are going to deliver us from all evil, but an economy which neglects the preservation of the natural balance will be utterly vulnerable to these impacts.

Q. And then ‘post-hoc’ critics would come…

A. Well, let’s focus on the ‘a priori’. We need to be proactive and anticipate the impacts and crises. Now they are playing the video where Bill Gates warned us of this pandemic, but you also have a lot of very intelligent people warning of the consequences of global warming and no one does anything about it. Being proactive would allow us to make history. This experiment of confinement should cause us enough trauma to stop and say, let’s look at the root causes of this pandemic. Because maybe the next pathogen could not affect our respiratory system, and what use is there for ventilators?

Q. What would success against this pandemic look like?

A. Any success we make against this virus, after the harm we endured, is going to be partial and Pyrrhic. A real success would mean the virus never affected us. And it is not impossible. We need a political class that is conscious of the challenge. Success in the face of this pandemic is not that we may go out, but rather that the risk of being confined, whether due to this or another disease, is as low as 30 years ago. We have doubled our population and we have half the ecosystems. In order to return to calmer conditions, when the possibilities of a cold drop [high impact rainfalls in the Spanish Mediterranean coast], wildfires as those of Australia, or a pandemic as this one were moderate albeit low, we need to change many things. And it seems we don’t want to. Populist and stop-gap measures will not solve this, and we are against the wall.

Original Spanish version:

Translation into English by Luis M. Espejo