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Biothreats - various forms and implications

Biothreats can take on many forms. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is the biothreat that has been on most of our minds recently. And for good reason. Since it was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, COVID-19 has infected tens of thousands of people worldwide, killing over 2,000 of those infected.

One of the most disturbing factors in the outbreak is the timeline. On December 31, 2019, China first reported to the World Health Organization several unusual cases of pneumonia in workers at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. On January 7, 2020, Chinese officials determined that this was a new virus in the coronavirus family. Now, just a few months later, the virus has infected more than 75,000 people in 29 countries including a number of countries outside of Asia including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Egypt, France, Germany and many more.

Certainly it is the death rate that scares us the most. At 2.3 %, the mortality rate far exceeds that of seasonal flu in the United States at 0.1 %. There are, however, other reasons to be concerned.

The economic impact of disease outbreaks can be crippling. The 2002 outbreak of SARS sickened 8,098 people while killing 774 of those infected. The global cost of this outbreak was between US$30 – 50 billion. Currently, the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to last through June 2020 and have an economic impact of US$1 trillion. It isn’t only the government that bears these costs. All citizens are impacted by consumer price inflation. In January 2020, China experienced an inflation rate of 5.4% with significantly greater inflation in some commodity areas. For example, compared to a year ago, the price of vegetables increased 17% while pork prices increased 116%.

But wait, you say. The astronomical rise in pork prices wasn’t solely caused by the shutdown of transportation and commerce caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, the primary driver of pork prices in China is the ongoing outbreak of another disease called African Swine Fever (ASF). The ASF virus itself represents another significant biothreat. Although ASF does not sicken people, there are significant implications of animal disease outbreaks like ASF. Back to the skyrocketing price of pork in China. ASF resulted in the loss of 65% of the Chinese pork herd. Since China is the largest producer of pork worldwide, their loss of pigs represents 30% of the world’s pigs. An outbreak of ASF in other large pork producing countries like the United States, European Union, or Brazil could have devastating economic impacts.

In addition to the human and economic implications of diseases like COVID-19 and ASF, these outbreaks often have significant animal health and environmental implications. Since the outbreak began in August of 2018, more than a million pigs have died or been killed to eradicate the disease. In Vietnam, almost 6 million pigs have been culled. The disposal of millions of animal carcasses is extremely difficult and has the potential to contaminate ground and surface water resources. In the fall of 2019, for example, a tributary of the Imjin River in South Korea turned red after heavy rain caused blood from pigs killed to control an outbreak of ASF to flow into the river.

Another example of an animal disease that poses a significant biothreat is avian influenza. In 2015 an outbreak of avian influenza in the United States resulted in the death of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys. Some estimates of the direct and lost opportunity cost of this outbreak at greater than US$3 billion dollars.

It is also important to recognize the connection between human, animal, and environmental health. It is easy to focus all of our biothreat resources on human disease agents. However, many of the diseases emerging in humans originate in animal populations. The diseases capable of jumping from animal to human populations are called zoonotic diseases and they represent about 75% of infectious diseases affecting humans. Examples of zoonotic diseases include Ebola, Zika, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, yellow fever, AIDS and rabies.

And now, it appears that a new zoonotic disease may have spilled over into humans from a live market in Hubei Province, China—COVID-19.

Gary Flory is the Agricultural & Stormwater Program Manager for the Valley Regional Office of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

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