In the following scene of my upcoming speculative novel “Thalweg” (set in 2053 Toronto) one of my characters, Daniel–who is a bit of a conspiracy theorist–is trapped in an old abandoned garage, about to fight off a pack of stray dogs. His feverish mind thinks back to the COVID-19 pandemic:
“The official story was that SARS-CoV-2, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic of the early ‘20s resulted from the recombination of two previous viruses in some host—supposedly a bat or pangolin—which then ended up in a Wuhun wet market; there, the recombined virus gleefully jumped species to humans, who, in turn, gleefully spread it worldwide. But, according to the study at the Wuhun hospital, patient zero hadn’t been anywhere near the wet market. So, where did the virus really come from?…”
Daniel then recalls a conversation he had–when he still had a job–with colleague Lynna in which he suggested that the chimera virus—and the others that followed—were developed as bioweapons through Gain-of-Function research and they somehow leaked into the public. To her scoff, he reminded her that the aim of GOF research is to induce an increase in the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens. He then provided numerous examples involving Influenza, SARS, and MERS. Did she know, for instance, that in 2014 Obama put a funding moratorium on all GOFR experiments that might enhance virus pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route? Then in 2017, under the Trump administration, the NIH turned it all back on.
Lynna responded calmly with a convincing argument, based on science and ecology. “Sure, they could be that,” she acknowledged thoughtfully. “Or they could simply be more cases of co-evolution and aggressive symbiosis…” Then she informed Daniel that viruses commonly form aggressive relationships with their hosts. Every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses, she said. The herpes-B virus that chums with the squirrel monkey is one example. The virus and an immunity to it passes harmlessly from mother to baby monkey. If a rival species like the marmoset monkey invades their territory, the virus jumps species and wipes out the challenger by inducing cancer in the competing marmoset monkey. Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a similar pattern of “aggressive symbiosis.”
This community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s “immune system” that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.
—excerpt from Nina Munteanu’s “Thalweg” (upcoming)
Aggressive Symbiosis & Virus X
In his 1997 book Virus X, virologist Dr. Frank Ryan coined the term aggressive symbiosis to explain a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator. Examples abound, but a few are worth mentioning.
In South American forests, a species of acacia tree produces a waxy berry of protein at the ends of its leaves that provides nourishment for the growing infants of the ant colony residing in the tree. The ants, in turn, not only keep the foliage clear of herbivores and preying insects through a stinging assault, but they make hunting forays into the wilderness of the tree, destroying the growing shoots of potential rivals to the acacia.
In Borneo, a species of rattan cane has developed a symbiotic relationship with a species of ants. The ants make a nest around the cane and drink its sweet sap. The ants, in turn, protect the cane. When a herbivore approaches to feed on the leaves, the ants attack.
Ryan draws an analogy between this aggressive symbiotic partnership and that of new zoonotic agents of disease. He argues that when it comes to emerging viruses, animals are the cane and ants are the virus.
Viruses & Zoonotic Agents of Disease
Ryan suggests that Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a pattern of aggressive symbiosis. This may explain why Ebola is so virulent. The Ebola virus is so fierce that victims don’t make it very far to infect others, suggesting that the virus is an evolutionary failure. However, if the virus is acting as an aggressive symbiont, it may be fulfilling its evolutionary purpose by protecting a host species we haven’t yet identified.
Historian William H. McNeill suggested that a form of aggressive symbiosis played a key role in the history of human civilization. “At every level of organization—molecular, cellular, organismic, and social—one confronts equilibrium [symbiotic] patterns. Within such equilibria, any alteration from ‘outside’ tends to provoke compensatory changes [aggressive symbiosis] throughout the system to minimize overall upheaval.”
One of a legacy of examples of aggressive symbiosis in history includes smallpox: the Europeans introduced smallpox (symbiotically co-evolved with them) to the Aztecs with devastating results. Other examples of aggressive symbiosis include measles, malaria, and yellow fever.
Wet Markets & Factory Farming
The National Observer gives a vivid description of the potential for zoonotic viral spread in the world’s wet markets, particularly in Wuhun:
“Dozens of species that rarely, if ever, come in contact with one another in the wild ― fish, turtles, snakes, bamboo rats, bats, even foxes and wolf cubs ― are confined in close quarters, waiting to be butchered and sold. The animals are often stressed, dehydrated and shedding live viruses; the floors, stalls and tables are covered in blood, feces and other bodily fluids.
“This is the scene at many of China’s so-called ‘wet markets,’ where a poorly regulated wildlife trade thrives and creates conditions that experts say are ideal for spawning new diseases.”
“You could not design a better way of creating pandemics,” said Joe Walston, head of global conservation at the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. “It’s really the perfect mechanism, not just for the Wuhan coronavirus but for the next ones that will undoubtedly emerge sooner rather than later.”
Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that can leap from animals to humans, are not uncommon and they don’t always come from exotic animals, writes Ari Solomon of Veganista. “Many come from the animals we regularly farm and eat. The 1918 influenza pandemic, or the Spanish flu, infected more than 500 million people and killed between 40-50 million worldwide. It is now commonly believed that the disease originated in birds. When the H1N1 virus, the same strain that caused the Spanish flu, showed up again in 2009, it first emerged in pigs. Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and pig MRSA also came from animals exploited for food.”
In 2004, Linda Saif, with the Department of Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center summarizes a number of farm and domestic animal reservoirs of zoonotic corona viruses that have caused human diseases historically and many that may still do so through recombinations. Animals have included cows (BCoV), pigs (PEDV and PRCV), chickens (IBV), turkeys, cats (FCoV and FIPV), ferrets and macaques. Saif cautions that, given that an estimated 75% of newly emerging human diseases arise as zoonoses (from wild or farm animals), interspecies transmission poses a continued threat to human health.
Wet markets aren’t the only places where animals are kept under and treated with cruelty and lack of any compassion or kindness:
“Thanks to the advent of factory farming, billions of animals are routinely kept in crammed, filthy conditions that cause them extreme stress. This abhorrent practice creates the perfect breeding ground for new diseases to thrive. Add to that the fact that we regularly feed factory farmed animals low-doses of antibiotics and we really have a recipe for disaster.”—Ari Solomon, Veganista
It comes down to balance. Something about which the human species has much to learn.
It is clear to me that these pandemics are exacerbated—if not outright caused by—our dense over-population and an exploitation mentality: our encroachment and defilement of natural habitats and the life that inhabits them. Gaia is suggesting that we live more lightly on this planet. Her ecosystems are responding to our aggression with equal aggression. And, make no mistake, we won’t win that battle. Just as we won’t win the battle with changing climate. It’s time to learn humility as a species in a diverse world. Time to cultivate respect for our life-giving environment. Time to learn the power of kindness.
The National Observer recently ran an article stating that: “COVID-19 and other health endemics are directly connected to climate change and deforestation, according to Indigenous leaders from around the world who gathered on March 13, in New York City, for a panel on Indigenous rights, deforestation and related health endemics.” The virus is telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years: that “if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri Indigenous person from Costa Rica and co-ordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).
Many environmental experts agree that the novel coronavirus will only be the first in waves of pandemics we can expect if we ignore links between infectious diseases and the destruction of the natural world.
“I’m absolutely sure that there are going to be more diseases like this in future if we continue with our practices of destroying the natural world,” said marine ecologist Dr Enric Sala to the Independent.
Reiterating the work of Dr. Frank Ryan, David Quammen, author of 2012 Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic told the Independent: “Our highly diverse ecosystems are filled with many species of wild animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. All of that biological diversity contains unique viruses.” This unique community has developed over many many years into a functional community symbiosis in which viruses play an important part.
“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” says Richard Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health.
The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanisation and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, said Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL to The Guardian.
“We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” says Jones. “Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from…We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
“When we tear down tropical forests to build villages, timber and mining camps, kill or capture wild animals for food, we expose ourselves to those viruses…It’s like if you demolish an old barn then dust flies. When you demolish a tropical forest, viruses fly. Those moments of destruction represent opportunity for unfamiliar viruses to get into humans and take hold.”—David Quammen
It’s aggression meeting aggression.
“Community-symbiosis functions like an ecosystem’s ‘immune system’ that protects its own from the encroachment of invading species—even when that invading species is us.”—Lynna Dresden in Nina Munteanu’s Thalweg
For more on “ecology” and a good summary and description of environmental factors like aggressive symbiosis and other ecological relationships, read my book “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press, 2019).
Glossary of Terms:
Aggressive Symbiosis: a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator (Ryan, 1997).
Co-evolution: when two or more species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution through the process of natural selection and other processes.
Gain-of-Function Research (GOFR): involves experimentation that aims or is expected to (and/or, perhaps, actually does) increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens (Selgelid, 2016).
Patient Zero: the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases.
Recombination: the process by which pieces of DNA are broken and recombined to produce new combinations of alleles. This recombination process creates genetic diversity at the level of genes that reflects differences in the DNA sequences of different organisms.
Symbiosis: Greek for “companionship” describes a close and long term interaction between two organisms that may be beneficial (mutualism), beneficial to one with no effect on the other (commensalism), or beneficial to one at the expense of the other (parasitism). (Munteanu, 2019).
Zoonosis: a zoonotic disease, or zoonosis, is one that can be transmitted from animals, either wild or domesticated, to humans (Haenan et al., 2013).
Virus: a sub-microscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. The virus directs the cell machinery to produce more viruses. Most have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material.
Frazer, Jennifer. 2015. “Root Fungi Can Turn Pine Trees Into Carnivores—or at Least Accomplices.” Scientific American, May 12, 2015. Online: https://blogs. scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/root-fungi-can-turn-pine-trees-into- carnivores-8212-or-at-least-accomplices/
Munteanu, N. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 198pp. (Section 2.7 Evolutionary Strategies)
Ryan, Frank, M.D. 1997. “Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues.” Little, Brown and Company, New York, N.Y. 430pp.
Ryan, Frank, M.D. 2009. “Virolution.” Harper Collins, London, UK. 390pp.
Saif, Linda J. 2004. “Animal Coronaviruses: lessons for SARS.” In: “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary.” National Academies Press (US), Kobler S., Mahmoud A., Lemon S., et. al. editors. Washington (DC).
Selgelid, Michael J. 2016. “Gain-of-Function Research: Ethical Analysis.” Sci Eng Ethics 22(4): 923-964.
VanLoon, J. 2000. “Parasite politics: on the significance of symbiosis and assemblage in theorizing community formations.” In: Pierson C and Tormey S (eds.), Politics at the Edge (London, UK: Political Studies Association)
Villarreal LP, Defilippis VR, and Gottlieb KA. 2000. “Acute and persistent viral life strategies and their relationship to emerging diseases.” Virology 272:1-6. Online: http://bird uexposed.com/resources/Villarreal1.pdf
Wohlleben, Peter. 2015. “The Hidden Life of Trees.” Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC. 272pp.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.