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The coronavirus and our island ecosystem
Jan 25, 2022
By Russel Barsh for Kwiaht
Containing the spread of the coronavirus also protects the non-human communities around us.
Thus far, efforts to contain and combat the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 have focused on humans. Reasonable enough, given that there are billions of us, mainly packed into dense population centers, traveling and socializing persistently, and therefore a generous viral host. Not to mention our reluctance or inability to respond promptly and effectively. Of course, the rapidly swelling cost of lost lives--currently just short of six million worldwide, officially--is tragic, from a humanistic perspective, and greatly underestimates the impacts of painful illness, chronic unresolved symptoms (“long Covid”), economic and emotional disruption on those that have survived and their families. The toll of premature deaths and human suffering has already attained a scale comparable to modern wars and dictatorships; and it is nowhere near over yet. As a scientist, I find it increasingly difficult to understand how people can choose to prolong this tragedy when we have tools at hand to reduce its spread and its severity, as in the past we have constrained poliomyelitis, tetanus, and other life-threatening and life-altering diseases.

As an ecologist, however, I am not only concerned about human self-destruction, but also the potential impact of novel pathogens on non-humans that share this human-crowded planet with us. With regard to SARS-Cov-2, we humans have once again acted as if we are the only ones that really matter. We have even blamed animals for the emergence of the novel virus, and have reacted with surprise and disbelief at news that animals from pets and livestock, to the denizens of zoos--cats, sheep, minks and otters, big cats among others--have contracted Covid-19 in the past two years. Some environmentalists have tried to capitalize on the pandemic by arguing that it was caused by our destruction of nature, implying that novel viruses breed in animals that are stressed by displacement, starvation, or disruptions of their life cycles. As if novel viruses would not breed in humans that are stressed by displacement, starvation, or disruptions of their life cycles by poverty, war, and oppression.

Humans are missing the point that, in an ecosystem in which humans dominate biomass, it is we that provide the richest crucible for the evolution of pandemic pathogens. Non-humans such as our livestock and wildlife can indeed become dangerous to us as reservoirs for pathogens (as they have been for rabies, and for some influenza strains) but we can monitor and manage a “bug” that has retreated and hidden among non-human hosts. We must also be conscious that a microbe capable of infecting and incapacitating humans may be equally destructive (or more so) if left untreated in non-human populations. To step back momentarily from an anthropocentric viewpoint: when we get sick, the ecosystem in which we live can catch whatever it is that ails us. Managing novel pathogens is not only a responsibility that we humans owe to each other; it is an imperative for protecting what remains of our planetary ecosystem.

Our nonprofit laboratory has had two instructive run-ins with public health since the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak. The first had to do with the SARS-Cov-2 virus itself, which belongs to a family of coronaviruses commonly found in insectivorous bats. While there is paltry evidence that the earliest human victims of Covid-19 were infected by handling or eating bats--the bats sold in the so-called “wet markets” of east Asia are big fruit bats, biologically quite unlike tiny insectivorous micro-bats--there is a reasonable risk of humans here in North America infecting the small bats that often roost inside our roofs and attics, sharing indoor airspace with us. This could have very serious consequences for the bats, in addition to the possibility of creating a permanent reservoir for the virus. We unsuccessfully sought support from animal-health foundations for funds to test bats living in close proximity to humans in our area. At first, the state wildlife agency shared our concerns, but later dismissed them, and focused on the risk of humans sharing SARS-Co-2 with river otters, which they continue to pursue. We remain concerned about the islands’ bats, which our ultrasound monitoring program indicates have slipped sharply in numbers since 2019.

On another scale, we have been investigating the spread of ticks and tick-borne illnesses in the islands. When we first announced our interest in this subject, health professionals assured us that ticks and Lyme Disease are absent in San Juan County. After just nine months of acquiring specimens from interested islanders, we can say with confidence that there are three widespread species of ticks in the islands, only one of which is considered “native” to the Northwest, and that they are found in residential areas and parks of Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands where they are found on humans, pets, and wildlife. None that we have tested thus far were infested with the Borrelia bacterium associated with Lyme, but ticks are so pervasive in our small communities that any future introduction of Borrelia or other pathogens could naturalize quickly. Most pathogens that ticks deliver to humans cause different symptoms in non-human mammals. In this case, we are chiefly concerned about impacts of tick-borne pathogens on humans, but bear in mind that humans almost certainly are responsible for introducing two species of ticks to the islands--and would almost certainly be the vector for introducing Borrelia to our islands’ ticks, for example by bringing a dog carrying infected ticks to the islands.

In the final analysis, “it’s all relatives,” as one of my Blackfoot colleagues used to explain to his science students. We’re all in this together: humans, other mammals with which we share viruses and other pathogens, and our island ecosystem. If humans act irresponsibly, and enable the SARS-Co-2 virus to fester and entrench itself in human and eventually non-human hosts, we humans will not be the only ones to suffer the consequences.

Russel Barsh is director of Kwiaht where, among other interests, he studies bats. Russel was in the original Salk polio vaccination cohort as an elementary school student 67 years ago.