In March 2021, the 13th month of the Covid confinement, the peepers, in their vast multitudes, sang out again. Down in the swampy wetlands below our house in Hudson Valley, New York, millions of Pseudacris crucifer (“cross-bearing false locusts” but actually minute frogs) puffed up their air sacs and warbled for a mate. That’s spring for you. The peepers are so tiny – an inch or so long – that you’ll never see one, no matter how carefully you creep up on them. Their blown-out song bags are nearly as big as the rest of them; it’s all they are: innocently inflated peeps of expectation.
They are not alone. In recent years, the soprano peepers have been accompanied by a bass rhythm section – wood frogs, Lithobates sylvaticus, a tattoo of deep quacking, punctuated by raspy burps. They and the peepers survive bitter winters by means of antifreeze cryoprotectants stored within their bodies. When ice crystals begin to form on their skins, their livers flood the bloodstream with glucose, sending vital organs like the heart, its beating paused, into a dormant but protected state. Seventy per cent of the frogs’ body water can then freeze without compromising the organs that will magically reawaken in the spring.
To help matters, wood frogs can recycle urea through their urine. So if you were to come across a wood frog in deep winter, or expose a tiny peeper beneath the leaf litter, their sparkling, gelid rigidity would lead you to assume they were dead. A twist from your fingers could snap a leg. So don’t do that, for as the Hudson Valley light goes pearly and the afternoons stretch out, the superficial body ice of the frogs melts away and, along with that decrystallising resurrection, wild singing begins: at first a mere teatime tuning up by scattered vocalists, but by sunset building into a massive chorus, an entire Albert Hall-ful of peepers. There is always mating business to be getting on with and only a month or so to get it done. Quick, quack, peep. The teeming amphibians ecstatically multiplied, even as much of humanity sank into another engulfing wave of infection.
It’s a commonplace (but no less true for being so) that the empty desolation of cities, the grim, still, silence of locked-down streets and squares, was offset by the irrepressible burgeoning of nature. We saw it – the budding and blossoming, the buzzing and butterfly-fluttering on our walks in parks and on heaths, in our gardens and on windowsills. While we hunkered and cowered, and ordered home delivery, flora rioted; fauna trespassed. Parliaments of legislators were reduced to socially distanced barking from the hollow shell of their chambers, while parliaments of birds flocked and chattered. We tweeted with our fingers; they tweeted with their lungs. Those with the sweetest song showed off, none more liquidly around here, in Hudson Valley, than the Carolina wren nesting under our barbecue.
The more we retreated into digitally numbed companionship, the more brazenly the company of animals advanced towards us. Morning roadkill was evidence of nocturnal roaming and rambling by hitherto seldom-seen critters. On the path leading to a local arts centre, weasels and milk snakes lay side by side, cartoonishly flattened, as if mutually KO’d in a small-hours brawl. At the entrance to our local woodland trail, a sign advised walkers not to make nice with the black bears. Everything, except us, seemed to be emboldened. Reporting on record fox sightings in her London neighbourhood, a friend chuckled, “It’s laughing at us, nature is.” So it was: the low chuckle of gallows humour.
But the joke’s on us. Things are amiss. Species are out of place, or incautiously testing human presumptions about where their place actually lies, and what its boundaries might be. Lockdowns or not, migrants, two-legged and four, are on the move to wherever subsistence beckons.
In north Wales, mountain goats from the Great Orme munching potted petunias off Llandudno windowsills supplied much-needed online entertainment. But the crashing of barriers between wild and domestic spaces has an ominous side. Displacement is a symptom of ecosystems under stress. The capybara roaming through the upscale gardens of houses in Nordelta on the outskirts of Buenos Aires would not be there had not the suburb been built by draining extensive areas of the Luján River delta, robbing the metre-long rodents of their natural habitat. The relentless growth of Mumbai – a million new residents a year – has pushed its eastern and western suburbs into areas normally reserved for leopards, specifically the 100 sq km of the Sanjay Gandhi wildlife sanctuary. Deprived of prey, the big cats have strayed beyond the preserve. At least 50 of them have taken up residence within the city, sustaining themselves from the enormous population of feral dogs, occasionally sampling an amuse-bouche of a dachshund or a Siamese cat.
The causes and consequences of this ecological disruption are complicated. On the one hand, it’s not good for the leopards to become Mumbai street creatures; on the other, they are doing the bloated metropolis a favour by culling the feral dog packs, which often include rabid animals. But then again, there would not be so many of those wild dogs were it not for the introduction, a decade ago, of diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly used for livestock in the 1990s, which ended up driving the third player in this urban drama – white-rumped vultures – to near extinction as a result of scavenging drugged cattle. A south Asian vulture population of 40 million in the 1980s now numbers around 19,000 40 years later. This is more than a catastrophic species loss, bad enough though that is. The dramatic depletion of vultures has unpicked the ecological threads that have tied human and animal culture together in India for centuries. The reverent freedom given to sacred cows by Hinduism, so that they might wander the streets until their bodies lie down in peaceful death, depended on the working assumption that carcasses would be cleaned by scavenging vulture flocks. Without the vultures, decomposing cattle have attracted rats and feral dogs, whose numbers have increased exponentially as the birds have disappeared. A collateral result is the steeply rising incidence of rabid attacks on humans, many of them fatal.
Mutuality between humans and animals has been dangerously disrupted. Temple monkeys, long conditioned to exist symbiotically with humans, and largely dependent on pilgrims and tourists for their food, turned combative as a result of the abrupt withdrawal of their customary diet. The Thai temple city of Lopburi has seen gangs of macaques, in their thousands, engage in violent street battles over scraps of discarded food, while residents barricaded themselves in their houses against the rampaging primates. There is good reason for their fear. Macaques are reservoir carriers of herpes B – McHV1 – often lethal for humans.
Disruption-born contagions are happening in domestic as well as exotic places. A serious malady generated by ecological displacement arrived almost 50 years ago and parked itself on the vegetation of the American dream: the suburban lawn. During my first year in New York state in 1994, it found me, and was no fun at all: three months of piercing headaches, spells of dizziness, and sharp, arthritic muscle pain, before an antibiotic got the better of it. The infecting agent of Lyme disease (named after Old Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first diagnosed and analysed) is a corkscrew-shaped spirochaete found in white-footed mice and sometimes in other small mammals like chipmunks. Not only do those mice survive the excavation and shredding of the woodland habitat for house construction, they positively thrive on the alteration, overwintering in the suburban estates that have displaced their native habitat.
The rodents function as reservoirs for the dormant but immanent spirochaete. Enter black-legged ticks, needing blood meals at each change in their life cycle, from larva to nymph to adult. A feed on the mice absorbs the spirochaete, which is then transferred to white-tailed deer, upon which the ticks lodge in huge numbers, especially on the ears and around the nose. The deer have themselves multiplied abundantly on the borderland between old forests and the herbicide-saturated, brilliantly lurid carpet lawns of “colonial” McMansions. Suburbanites are accustomed to watching white-tailed deer emerge from their woodland cover to graze their shrubs or settle on lawn pasture. During the pandemic, fear of urban contagiousness led to departures from cities by those who could afford to do so. But clearcutting for suburban construction to meet the quickened demand has brought new residents ever closer to those ubiquitous reservoirs of disease – white-footed mice. Even as house-dwellers awaited their next delivery of online-ordered groceries, black-legged ticks hung on the blades of those hyperfertilised lawns, primed for their next blood meal.
This shrinking of distance between wild and human habitats has also encouraged the long-distance traffic in wild animals. In 2005, it was estimated that each year of the previous decade had seen the live trafficking of 40,000 primates, 640,000 reptiles, 4 million birds and 350 million fish, numbers that have almost certainly increased in the years since. In 2017, China’s National Key Research and Development Programme estimated the value of wildlife trades for medical sales and food consumption at 520bn yuan (£60bn). Pangolins – scaly anteaters found in both sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia – are, since the enforcement of restrictions against ivory, the most commonly trafficked mammals of all. Malayan pangolins are served in high-end restaurants in south-east Asia, especially in Vietnam, where they are both the most popular wild delicacy on the menu and, at £120 for 450g, the most expensive. Assuming you have remembered to order your pangolin three hours in advance, the manager of the Thiên Vuong Tuu (Alcohol of the Gods) restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City will personally bring the live animal to your table and slit its throat to assure you of the unimpeachable freshness of the upcoming dish.
Unlike sources of ivory, pangolins are pathetically easy to catch. Their scaly covering may pose a challenge for animal predators, but when they are shaken from a tree or a bushy hideaway, the perfectly curled-up ball into which they form themselves is a pangolin harvester’s perfect convenience. Into the bag go the scaly balls and into the truck goes the bagful. Tens of thousands of these animals are caught this way every year, most of them merely for the scales, which, when ground finely, are advertised as promoting lactation, helping to heal sores and rashes, banishing headaches and curing anorexia, infertility and pretty much anything else that might ail you. The fact that the scales are entirely keratin, and thus ingesting them is no more medical help than eating chewed fingernails, has no effect on the size and success of the pangolin market, which asks £2,400 for a kilogram of scales plucked from the roasted animals.
An ironic consequence of the rise in demand for animal-sourced remedies is that they have ended up contributing to the ailments they are thought to cure. In the spring of 2020, a group of Chinese scientists published analyses of coronavirus-infected pangolins confiscated from smugglers in 2017 and 2018 by customs officials at Guangdong. The receptor-binding domain of the virus was 97% identical with that of Sars-CoV-2. Though this is not enough to clinch the case for pangolins being the intermediary host for the virus between a reservoir mammal like a bat and the end destination in humans, it adds to the growing evidence that the waves of terrifying diseases coming at the world faster and faster are almost always zoonotic. They are the direct result of what we have done to our planetary habitat. Climate change has added to the witches’ brew, since the flooding that comes with extreme weather events has created more breeding pools for disease-carrying mosquitoes, which, thanks to global warming, now also have an extended season in which to multiply. The massively extended disease ranges of West Nile virus and Zika virus are the result. In a disconcertingly gothic footnote that Mary Shelley would have appreciated, the melting of glaciers on the Tibet-Qinghai border into a vast saline lake has revealed viruses dated to 15,000 years ago and said to be unlike any yet known to contemporary science.
The years since 1980 have seen outbreaks of new infections at a rate of one every eight months in hot zones from Brazil to central Africa to south-east Asia, most of them viral. They include the catastrophes of HIV and Ebola, as well as Sars and H5N1 bird flu. The routinisation of long-distance trade in animals has speeded up the pace of these contagions. H5N1 originated in two mountain eagles illegally transported to Belgium from Thailand; chytridiomycosis, the fungal disease that made 90 species of amphibians extinct, was spread by the international traffic in African clawed frogs.
Sickness in animals has, inevitably, made its way into the human population transporting, marketing and consuming them. Mpox (formerly known as monkeypox), first identified in 1958 in macaques, has reservoirs in striped mice, giant pouched rats, African rope squirrels and brush-tailed porcupines. A first American outbreak in 2003 has been traced to some of those exotic animals being housed with prairie dogs for the wild pet trade. The jump of the disease from animal to human populations in Africa is itself a cascade of all the disruptions – demographic, social and environmental – that have stirred new contagions from dormancy. For 40 years, no human cases of Mpox were recorded. But between 1970 and 2018 the population of Nigeria almost quadrupled from nearly 56 million to 195 million. The demographic explosion drove the conversion of rainforest to farmland and conurbations, along with the migration of reservoir species of animals into cities. A series of floods generated by climate change accelerated this migration, and, ironically, the termination of smallpox vaccination programmes due to the announced declaration of the extinction of the disease in 1980 weakened immunity to the closely related Mpox virus. From two African zones – west Africa and the chronically war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo – the international trade in wildlife exported the disease to the US and beyond.
The Sars epidemic of 2003-04, only barely contained, has been traced back to the meat of masked palm civets, shredded and combined with chrysanthemum petals and minced snake to make the high-priced delicacy “dragon-tiger-phoenix soup”, served in upmarket restaurants in south China. The virus jumped, not to civet-eaters, but to others in the supply chain leading to the dish: breeders of captive civets held in filthy cages in Guangdong, transporters, slaughterers and cooks. It gets worse (or better) for an opportunistic virus. In Thailand, captive populations of masked palm civets are fed exclusively on coffee bean “cherries” which, as they travel through the gastro-intestinal tract, have the acidity extracted from them by the action of digestion-aiding enzymes. The neat piles of coffee cherries packed in civet excreta will then end up as your speciality java of the day, expensively priced on the market. Imagine how many opportunities there might be for a virus to make the jump from an infected animal to a civet-shit gatherer slaving on minimum wage. Venti latte, anyone?
Although a letter to Nature Medicine in March 2020 from Kristian Andersen and four microbiologist colleagues argued, on the basis of genomic analysis, that “it is improbable that Sars-CoV-2 emerged from the laboratory manipulation of a related Sars-CoV-like coronavirus” and that it was more likely to have come from an animal reservoir – like Rhinolophus affinis, the intermediate horseshoe bat – there is, at the time of writing, no definitive verdict on the virus’s aetiology. Live mammals known to be susceptible to Sars, such as hog badgers, foxes and (especially) raccoon dogs sold for both fur and meat, were stored and sold in quantities at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, and the first known infected person was a vendor there. In March 2023, raw genetic data taken from swabs around the stacked cages of raccoon dogs showed that an animal did indeed carry the Sars-CoV-2 virus, although whether it contracted the infection independently in the wild or was infected by a human remains as yet unproven. In January 2023, 155 microbiologists joined a commentary by the editor of the Journal of Virology, Felicia Goodrum, asking, optimistically, for a less politicised “rational discourse” on the subject, stating that “at this time and based on the available data, there is no compelling evidence” supporting either “an accident” or “nefarious actors” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That still remains the case, since data supporting the US Department of Energy’s “low confidence” opinion, made public in February 2023, that a lab leak was the likely origin of the virus, remains classified.
Unfortunately, there may never be a definitive explanation of the origin of Sars-CoV-2, but there is no doubt that the closeness between human and wild animal populations has enabled “reverse zoonosis”: viral leaps from humans to non-humans, and then back again. It is thought by some epidemiologists that this is the route that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 took, mutation taking place in infected rats which then transmitted an adapted virus back to humans. On 23 February 2023, Cambodian health authorities reported the death of an 11-year-old girl in Prey Veng province from H5N1, the virus responsible for the current pandemic of influenza in wild and domestic bird populations. The virus had already made the jump from avians to mammals including Peruvian seals and Spanish mink. At the time of writing, although the Cambodian girl’s father also tested positive for H5N1 infection, there is as yet no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. But the likely epidemiological implication of this news from Cambodia has already made the World Health Organization (the WHO) state that the report is “worrying”. Wildlife, intensively fed and bred livestock, and humans to all intents and purposes, now constitute a common planetary reservoir of perpetually evolving and mutating micro-organisms, some of them baleful. The Global Virome Project, established, as its name suggests, to coordinate worldwide research, estimates that there are 1.6m potential zoonotic viruses in the world with just 1% of them currently identified and analysed.
All this is happening at ever briefer intervals. Demography remakes geography, transforming – right now, and not for the better – the future of life on Earth.
By the end of 2021, up to 18 million people had died, worldwide, from Covid-19 infection, according to some estimates. You would suppose that in the face of a pandemic – an outbreak that by definition is global – together with a recognition of shared vulnerability, governments and politicians might have set aside the usual mutual suspicions and, under the aegis of the WHO, agreed on common approaches to containment, vaccination and control. Needless to say, nothing remotely like that has happened. If anything, the reverse has been the case: responses to the pandemic sharply diverged, even within entities like the European Union, ostensibly committed to common policies. Decisions taken by individual US states on vaccination requirements and mask mandates thwarted federal guidelines, deepening the already bitter cultural divisions between “red” and “blue” America. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, cast himself as the voice of Regular Folks’ mistrust of expert opinion handed down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: the people’s anti-Fauci.
To some extent, the raising of walls, psychological and institutional, is understandable. The instinctive reaction to contagion breaking out somewhere distant is to erect barriers against its importation. For a while, geographically isolated countries like New Zealand benefited from the possibility of self-sealing. But two years’ experience of the pandemic, in particular the unpredictable incidence of recurring outbreaks and viral mutations, has made the locking off of discrete zones of exclusion all but impossible. The need for an alternative, transnational approach to containment, mitigation and protection, coordinated by the WHO, has never been more urgent. The geographically uneven and glaringly unequal supply and delivery of vaccines and therapeutic drugs has only underlined this need. Because mutations arise most easily in thinly vaccinated populations, the comment of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, that “until everyone is vaccinated no one will be safe” ought to have been an epidemiological truism.
This was not, however, the attitude of the then US president. At the end of May 2020, during the most desperate early days of the pandemic, Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the WHO. His major justification was to complain that the organisation had become a pawn of the Chinese government and had, in effect, been an accomplice of Beijing’s efforts to disguise the origin of the Covid outbreak. In Trump’s view, this meant that China and the WHO, working as collaborators, had knowingly unleashed the contagion on the world with the unpardonable consequence (if not actual intention) of damaging his re-election prospects. They had had the audacity to launch the embarrassment virus with millions of fatalities as collateral damage. Whether or not Covid-19 was the result of a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it is undeniable that China did initially play down the magnitude of the outbreak in Wuhan. The WIV was not at all transparent in making documentation of its experiments with genetically manipulated viruses available, yet the WHO was prepared to take on trust Chinese statements, such as they were, about the origin and spread of the disease. It was, however, far from alone in this incuriousness. In the early stages of the outbreak, there was no more ardent cheerleader for Xi Jinping and his government’s Covid measures than Trump himself. “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus,” he said in January 2020, and a month later, “I think China’s handled it [Covid] really well.”
Once, however, Trump concluded that China had weaponised its own epidemiological dishonesty and incompetence expressly to make him look bad, his mentions of the virus invariably came with a tag of culpability, as in “the China virus” or more facetiously “the kung flu”. There is a history to attaching misleading nicknames to pandemics, the better to characterise them as an alien plague falling upon a vulnerable homeland. Although the first documented cases of the horrific influenza outbreak of 1918 occurred in a military establishment in Kansas, the pandemic became known as “the Spanish flu”, principally as a result of that country’s willingness (unlike belligerents in Europe) to report candidly on the severity and extent of the contagion. In no time at all, discussion about the origin and transmission routes of Covid had likewise collapsed into the usual mire of military metaphors, so that its progress became an “invasion” against which “defences” had to be manned, battles fought, conquests pursued, to a decisive “victory”. Politically, it was all too easy for populist leaders, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, infuriated by their impotence in the face of a microbial “enemy”, to emerge from an initial state of denial into a nationalist blame game; somehow, some other force, some other nation, was responsible for their country’s predicament.
Before long, any possibility of a clear and honest understanding of the common worldwide conditions that allowed such disasters to happen, not least the biological consequences of environmental degradation, became swallowed up by this default vocabulary of competitive nationalism. Astonishingly, Boris Johnson’s UK government was so intent on applying its new norms of Brexit isolation that it withdrew from the common European pandemic early warning information pool. Later, it made the claim that Brexit had allowed it to have the earliest and most successful vaccination programme, passing over the inconvenient fact that, as of July 2022, Britain nonetheless had the highest case and mortality rate of any state in western Europe.
Mercifully, it has not all been a zero-sum game. In late March 2021, 25 world leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, Johnson, Mario Draghi, Angela Merkel, Cyril Ramaphosa, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, as well as the prime ministers of South Korea, Fiji, Thailand, Chile, Senegal and Tunisia – but, depressingly, missing the leaders of the US, Japan, Russia and China – issued a statement explicitly acknowledging the chain linking human and non-human lives and destinies. Invoking the multilateralist idealism of the years following the second world war that sought a reconnected world through the United Nations and agencies like the WHO, they proposed a legally binding international treaty to deal with future pandemics. Such a treaty would embody “an approach that connects the health of humans, animals and our planet”.
On 1 September 2021, Merkel and Ghebreyesus opened the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin. In a gesture more appropriate for a country fair or the launch of an ocean liner, they cut a ribbon in two places. The ribbon was striped red and white as if simultaneously alerting visitors to peril and bidding them enter anyway. The hub’s mission brief says that it is meant to provide global data linkage and the sharing of advanced analytical tools and predictive models, the better to be armed against future outbreaks. “No single institution or nation can do this alone,” Ghebreyesus declared. “That’s why we have coined the term ‘collaborative intelligence’.” But there is already data-gathering at the WHO Academy in Lyon and preparations for the storage of infectious material at a secure bio-bank in – where else? – Switzerland. None of this, however, overcomes the immense disparity of resources, for both research and clinical trials, between richer countries and the regions of the world from which new infectious diseases often arise.
This moment in world history is no less fraught for being so depressingly familiar: the immemorial conflict between “is” and “ought”; between short-term power plays and long-term security; between the habits of immediate gratification and the prospering of future generations; between the cult of individualism and the urgencies of common interest; between the drum beat of national tribalism and the bugle call of global peril; between native instinct and hard-earned knowledge. If it is a happy answer you want to the question as to which will prevail, it is probably best not to ask a historian. For history’s findings are more often than not tragic, and its boneyard littered with the remains of high-minded internationalist projects. The appeals of idealists fill whole-page declarations in earnest broadsheets and win funds from far-sighted philanthropic foundations. But the plans and the planners are demonised by the tribunes of gut instinct as suspiciously alien, hatched by cosmopolitan elites: the work of foreign bodies.