Utku Perktaş

Dr. Utku Perktaş is a professor of biogeography in the Biology Department at Hacettepe University.

A major source of viruses in the Chinese geography is bats.

Utku Perktaş

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a “Disease-X ” warning some time ago. Disease-X: The name sounds like it’s come straight out horror scenarios in sci-fi movies but it real. It’s classified within the same category as other respiratory diseases such as Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever disease, Ebola, MERS, and SARS. According to the WHO, the coronavirus is a previously-unknown disease that can develop into a major epidemic in the future.

Scientists guessed that the diseases that threaten the world today would pose a threat to humankind in the future. But they could not predict their origins and how they could spread. Therefore, it was hard to call on governments to take action when much of the knowledge was left in the dark. As a result of this lack of precise knowledge, we came across a new virus in Wuhan, China. It’s thought to be transmitted from bats to game animals and then to people. We will look at the reasons for this, but first, we need to clarify a point.

Unfortunately, it is plausible to define this century as a period of incubation for such previously-unknown diseases. Why? Because human-induced problems we experience in this century are increasing day by day. The most important and recent problem is COVID-19 (CO-corona, VI-virus, D-disease, 19-2019): the coronavirus. Before we move onto the details about this virus, let’s mention another major problem that may be related to the coronavirus and related diseases.

Diseases that come with climate change

Climate change due to global warming is the problem that we need to remember and highlight before addressing such problems. This is because climate change affects human life and health in various ways and, in reality, it may be one of the main reasons why such diseases spread. Climate change can weaken decades of progress in global health in a very short time since it threatens essential health components: clean air, safe drinking water, quality food, and safe shelter. According to the WHO, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 new deaths due to infections between 2030 and 2050. The cost of this is estimated to be at least $ 2 billion.

The increase in the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the first 20 years of the century we live in has shown that the world will face an average temperature increase of 3ºC to 4ºC until 2100. This increase has never been experienced in the past 20 million years the world has existed. And it’s at least 20 times higher than the rising values of the temperatures seen about 18 thousand years ago when the last glacial period had reached its peak. In other words, the average temperature increase that the world will experience in the next 80 years is abnormally above the increase in the last 18 thousand years. Likely, a change of this speed will come with the cost of combating several serious problems such as infectious diseases, to preserve the world and human life. Could one of these problems be the coronavirus? Of course, it could be…

The most important and recent problem is COVID-19 (CO-corona, VI-virus, D-disease, 19-2019): the coronavirus.

Why might it first appear in China?

The coronavirus is part of a virus group that has always existed in our lives, at least over the last decades. Respiratory diseases such as SARS and MERS, which are included in the WHO ranking, are caused by similar types of viruses. We are not unfamiliar with these viruses but their rapidly-evolving structure engenders different diseases, which is what threatens human life. So where are the origins of coronaviruses and what are their main geographic origin? It’s China. And a major source of viruses in this geography is bats. But let’s take a look at China’s contribution to global warming and its impact on natural life, with its population of approximately 1.5 billion; the changes it triggers within its political borders are considerably higher than in countries where the population is much lower.

For example, China has reached more than 10,000 million tons in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions between 1970 and 2018. Carbon emission is known to be one of the most important causes of global warming, and China ranks first among other countries in the world. The ever-growing population also has and is currently posing a great threat to natural life: a greater population means more human activity.

The main effect of changing average temperatures in the world, as is the case with global warming, on animal populations is that it shifts their geographic distribution. And as the human population increases, damaging the distribution areas of these animals, the creatures are led into a bottleneck: people and natural life are now coming into contact more often than ever. As a result, we encounter many different micro-organisms that have evolved rapidly. We are not familiar with these organisms and we are now fighting against infections that we have not seen before. Fruit bats in China are the best example. It’s known that bat and human contact had increased due to the bats’ nutritional needs and the expansion of their geographic distribution areas.

We urgently need to increase the measures against global warming and alleviate the pressures on natural life. Besides the measures we will take for health, the measures we will take for global warming will make this planet more livable for both ourselves and the 1.8 million species outside of us. And what happens if we don’t? The answer to this question was given by the Potsdam Institute Climate Impact director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber quite clearly: A 4ºC increase in world average temperatures will result in a reduction in the world’s carrying capacity of 1 billion people.

Therefore, if we are talking COVID-19 today, and if we continue on this path, there is no reason why we wouldn’t be speaking of COVID-22, COVID-50 or COVID-70 in the near future.