The World Health Organization has reported 30 cases of human infection with the new coronavirus — two in Jordan, two in Qatar, 23 in Saudi Arabia, two in the United Kingdom and one in the UAE. Of those infected in Saudi Arabia, two deaths have already been reported and concern is growing over the potential global spread of the disease. These recent clusters of infection demonstrate a higher risk of person-to-person infection.
The coronavirus causes pneumonia, kidney failure and respiratory infections in both humans and animals — but it is unclear whether it is a mutation of an existing virus, or an animal-based infection that has made the jump to humans. It appears to behave similarly to SARS, which killed over 750 people in 2003.
The clusters of infected patients currently being reported, have shared hospital spaces in various countries — and that combination of weakened immune systems and sterile environments (which only allow for the strongest viruses to survive) may have aided in the spread of the disease. There is currently no antiviral treatment for this class of virus, although research is ongoing.
The most worrying factor about this recent outbreak is that some infected patients had returned on flights from Saudi Arabia — and as we learned with SARS, international travel can swiftly spread a localized outbreak into a global pandemic. The World Health Organization has already organized a team of experts to study the virus, and hopefully contain it before it spreads further.
As bleak as it might sound, the most insanely fatal viruses rarely manage spread, because their rapid kill rate ensure death in the victim before contact with others can be established. Natural selection, therefore, favors viruses that have longer incubation periods inside the human body. But in a globalized economy with big city populations, rapid airplane travel and a tremendous amount of clustered common spaces — the dangers of infection are becoming more and more apparent. By the time we're facing a real epidemic and panic in the streets, it might very well be too late to save most people.
We desperately need to increase our scientific literacy, and honestly face the dangers we're creating through our bio-engineering. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who also happens to be the only microbiologist serving in Congress, called for an immediate reduction in the use of antibiotics in livestock, after a new study confirmed animal-to-human transmission of MRSA.
This is the danger of having a congress comprised of lawyers and businessmen glad-handing hordes of lobbyists. 50% of the Senate and 42% of the House left government to become lobbyists between 1998-2004 — with a salary increase at an average of 1452%. There are hardly any scientists, engineers, or experts from other fields holding seats of power to weigh in on issues of societal safety with actual experienced knowledge.
This is very apparent in the regulatory failings of our nation's agricultural industry. The living condition of most farmed animals in America, combined with the overuse of antibiotics, is a dangerous platform which encourages the rapid spread of only the most ferocious of bacterial infections. Moreover, the ubiquity of and demand for cheap meat makes it harder for small, independent farmers who don't want to be part of the commodity system to successfully produce higher quality food.
It's worth noting that the animals we farm and eat use their stomach bacteria to turn fiber, grass, and other things we can't digest into the meat we find so delicious. To further ensure maximum meat yield, cattle are often fed calorie dense silage which causes rapid weight gain. This unfortunately also increases their stomach acidity, which allows more infectious and toxic bacteria to grow. This is why most animals have antibiotics prepackaged into their feed — to reduce the bad bacteria, and allow the useful ones to flourish. But this desire to maintain optimal growth rate walks a dangerous line of increasing the strength of potential disease.
Nature can be remorseless, and our efforts to engineer it to our comfort and safety can yield as many boons as it can dangers. A perfect example of this, is the story of the Klebsiella planticola bacteria, manufactured in 1990 by a European biotech firm. The intention of the engineered bacterium was to attack dead plant matter and convert it into ethanol — thereby removing organic waste, and creating a new source of fuel. But no one at the company thought to test it against living plants, before preparing to ship this rapidly spreading bacterium worldwide. Luckily for the entire human race, Dr. Elaine Ingham at Oregon University tested it thoroughly and discovered that, had the product been released commercially, it would have destroyed every single living form of plant life on the planet — trees, fields, bushes and grass.
We were lucky that Dr. Ingham saved the entirety of Earth's plant population from becoming an alcohol-rich slime, preserving our only source of oxygen and food on this planet. Although the apocalypse would certainly not have lacked for libation, we can no longer afford to carelessly sacrifice our collective safety for the profit margins of a few.