Zoonotic Spaces

Pandemic Paper (2020)

Image by Fernando Campana.

The invasion is over, Earth’s defenders vaporised by the Martian tripods. It hadn’t made for much of a fight. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants,” laments one routed artillerymen, now living feral on Putney Heath. Humanity, he warns, is destined to become chattel. “Nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry.” The Martians will chivvy the survivors from their bolt holes. They will farm them.

H.G. Wells’s 1898 book The War of the Worlds is a tale of conflicting ecosystems feeding upon one another. “Let it suffice to say,” explains Wells of Martian nourishment, “[that] blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by mean of a little pipette into the recipient canal.” The artilleryman’s fatalism comes close to the story’s climax when, mad with trauma, Wells’s narrator approaches the Martian army seeking self-destruction. Instead, he makes a startling discovery. The Martians are dead, reduced to “lank shreds of brown, at which the hungry birds pecked and tore[...] overtaken by a death that must have seemed to them as incomprehensible as any death could be.”

It’s a moment of grizzled earthiness amidst the sci-fi. In its attack upon the alien planet the Martian army has been exposed to pathogens to which it holds no defences. The Martians have underestimated the complexity of the ecosystem they sought to conquer, failing to realise that their actions have opened a war on two fronts. While humans could make little headway against the sophisticated war machines of the Martians, those invisible “transient creatures [which] swarm and multiply in a drop of water” decimate the invaders. The Martians are rotted out by the planet’s microbial subworld, and their survivors forced to retreat: “As we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we’re getting their diseases.”

Ah, except the Martians don’t speak in The War of the Worlds, so that quote was finagled somewhat. It’s actually from Spillover, a 2012 non-fiction book by science writer David Quammen that documents zoonoses, or animal infections which are transmissible to humans. They’re more common than you might think. “Show me a strange new disease,” says Quammen, “and, most likely, I can show you a zoonosis.” According to ‘Host Range and Emerging and Reemerging’, a 2005 University of Edinburgh epidemiological paper, 58 per cent of the 1,407 recognised human pathogens are zoonotic. If you restrict matters to emerging human diseases, those whose incidence is increasing after their initial introduction, three quarters are zoonotic. Ebola is zoonotic, as are West Nile, plague, malaria and the influenzas. Machupo, Marburg, Lassa and SARS are zoonotic, and so too are dengue fever, rabies, Hendra and HIV. SARS-CoV-2, our current coronavirus, is also zoonotic. It likely passed to humans from bats, potentially travelling through pangolins along the way.

Zoonosis, Quammen notes, is “a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the twenty-first century.” So far he seems correct. Epidemics occurred frequently throughout the second half of the 20th century and, since 2000, an accelerating number of zoonotic incident has shown little sign of abating: SARS (2003), swine flu (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2013-16, 2018), Zika (2015-16) and Nipah (2018), to name just a few. One reason for this is straightforward. Zoonoses spill into the population when humans come into contact with other species. There are currently 7.8 billion humans on Earth, while as recently as 1927 there were just 2 billion, so increased contact is almost certainly inevitable. This increase, however, should be coupled to a corresponding rise in the numbers of domestic animals that support this human population. “There are now more than one billion cattle, one billion pigs, and over twenty billion chickens living on our planet,” writes virologist Nathan Wolfe in his 2011 book The Viral Storm. “There are estimated to be more domestic animals alive today than in all the past ten thousand years of domestication through 1960 combined.” While many microbes originating in these domesticated animals may have long since entered into humans, this doesn’t preclude them from operating as vectors for new diseases contracted from wild species they come into contact with. “When we’re increasing agricultural intensification and livestock densities,” explains Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, speaking on The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, “they’re also encountering wildlife pathogens.”

Nipah, for instance, is a virus originating in fruit bats. In 1998, it began circulating among Malaysia’s 2.35m domestic pigs, likely as a result of contaminated fruits dropping into piggeries before passing on into humans. By the time the epidemic was brought under control, 109 people had died, with a case fatality rate of close to 40 percent – the virus triggering encephalitis and other serious neurological damage. Although the disease originated in wild animals, it was spread and amplified by commercial farms The first sign that nipah had reached a new area was the sound emerging from animals held in the piggeries. “It became known as a one-mile barking cough,” bat zoonosis expert Hume Field told Australia’s 60 Minutes, “because you could hear it a mile away.”

More people for wildlife to come into contact with and more domestic animals to ease passage along the way. “If you look at the world from the point of view of a hungry virus,” historian William H. McNeill argued in his 1976 book Plagues and People “[...] we offer a magnificent feeding ground with all our billions of human bodies”. McNeill’s conception of the body as a feeding ground is apt, not least because the issue is exacerbated by its spatial element. Growing contact between disparate species is not simply a matter of increased bodies, but of a decrease in discrete environments too. The rapid erosion of natural habitats has seen forests razed, wetlands drained and wilderness cleared, driving wildlife into closer proximity with the urban and agricultural environments raised in their stead. We are not only abundant, but intrusive. Meanwhile, global transportation systems have forged disparate places into single environments, enabling the rapid mass transit of people, goods and animals across vast distances. “We no longer live on a planet where pockets of life persist for centuries without contact with others,” writes Wolfe. “We now live on a microbially unified planet. For better or worse, it’s one world.”

One factor worth considering in relation to this, at least in cases where other species have been purposefully brought into human environments, is an eroded distinction between goods and animals – a form of objectification played out in commercial contexts. This is not necessarily a question of animal products such as meat or milk, but a concern over the animals themselves. One recurrent hypothesis as to the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, is that SARS-CoV-2 spilled over into human at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market Based in Wuhan, the Huanan wet market primarily trades in fish and shellfish, but is reported to have supplemented this with a smaller number of stalls selling live and slaughtered wildlife such as beavers, porcupines and snakes. Determination of whether the Huanan market was the site of the SARS-CoV-2 spillover will take time, but what is not up for dispute is the fact that markets trading in wildlife the world over represent hospitable sites for possible microbial transmission.1

Writing in her 2017 study The Extinction Market, researcher and analyst Vanda Felbab- Brown characterised the wildlife trade as partially driven by a mindset in which “wild animals and plants are seen through the prism of their utilization as sources of income, food and prestige.” The fact that animal are sentient beings is either not recognised, or else outweighed by the importance attached to their value as a resource. There are socioeconomic reasons for this framework that demand investigation and redress, not least the pressures (and exploitation) of rural poverty, but it has undeniably fostered a number of spaces and systems in which wildlife is cultivated as a species of goods to be stocked and traded. This is no small trade. According to a 2018 study by wildlife NGO TRAFFIC, around 1.3m protected wild animals and plants, 1.5m skins, and 2,000 tonnes of meat, were legally exported from Africa to Asia between 2006 and 2015. These figures, however, only pertain to animals that fall under the multilateral CITES wildlife treaty. “The volume of international trade in animals not categorized by CITES is about ten times greater than the trade in listed ones[...] while the domestic trade is ten times greater than that,” explains journalist Rachel Love Nuwer in her 2018 book Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. And recall that these figures only apply to legal, or nominally legal, exports.

In 2004, a team of researchers based in Hong Kong produced ‘Wild Animal Trade Monitoring at Selected Markets in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, South China, 2000–2003’, a study of conditions observed in its subject markets.2 “The animals are packed in tiny spaces and often in close contact with other wild and/or domesticated animals such as dogs and cats,” the authors wrote, adding that the stacked wire cages used to house the animals allowed excrement and urine to rain down through the shelves. “Many are either sick or with open wounds and without basic care. Animals are often slaughtered inside the markets in several stalls specialising in this.” This style of densely-stocked retail works well for many products the world over – from dry goods to electricals, textiles to hardware – but there are clear questions over whether it should be applied to live animals, or whether such creatures should be shoehorned into the category of products to begin with. Even ignoring the obvious ethical issues, this setup raises rudimentary problems of retail design that have clear implications for public health.

Conventional products stacked on a shelf are static, hermetic units. They don’t salivate, cough, defecate, urinate, bleed or ooze; they aren’t resolved into a slick of meat, blood and viscera at the point of sale. An obvious difference, but not one addressed by the retail model. Given the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the Huanan market, as well as evidence to suggest that 2003’s SARS epidemic may have spread from masked palm civets sold in Guangdong, perhaps it’s a model that simply isn’t well suited to the sale of animals? If nothing else, caging myriad species in the close proximity demanded by dense retail settings, installed amidst urban populations of millions, presents an obvious problem for epidemiology. “A virus that gets out here,” notes Wolfe, “has definitely won the microbial lottery.” For the record, I don’t believe that pangolins or palm civets should be sold, period. I accept the ethical arguments against cultural reasons for their consumption, while any necessity for their capture and sale as a result of poverty is a condemnation of the inequalities in the system that allowed things to reach that stage to begin with. But if they are to be sold, then the mode of that sale needs to engage with epidemiological realities – for the safety of those involved if nothing else.

Not that wildlife markets are alone in treating animals as products – they’re probably not even the worst offenders. The exact same view is rooted in industrial livestock production, as evinced by the historian Sigfried Giedion in his 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command, in which he explains that industrial pig farming sees itself as being essentially concerned with “a complex, irregularly shaped object: the hog.” Pigs and their ilk are clearly best-sellers. In 2017, roughly 2bn live hogs, chickens, cattle, sheep and goats were shipped around the world, and it is worth noting that these are not heirloom breeds with the kind of genetic variety across populations that might act as a firebreak in the case of spreading disease. These are animals as product, designed and bred to meet the needs of an industrial agriculture that has traded small herds for the scale achievable through corporate production lines that span the world.

Consider poultry. “[Industrial chickens] are as much commodities as they are birds,” argues the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace in his 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu. “As much engineering problems as living organisms[...] [they are bred for] for what the market and the industrial filière demand – big breasts in six weeks tops”. It is an efficient system judged according to its own limited production goals, but comes with severe epidemiological costs. Given that industrial herds and flocks represent carefully designed products rather than naturally variegated populations, they “are unable to evolve in response” to any new pathogen they might encounter. The poultry flocks of industrial agriculture are artificial, immuno-compromised ecologies that could “never persist in nature because of the disease costs they incur”, but whose artificial design in mitigation of this natural impossibility “[allows] more poultry to be processed faster.” This model may enjoy success when applied to industrial objects but it does nothing to acknowledge that rapid, large-volume production is a narrow, ill-fitting design brief to apply to animal species. The problem hides in plain sight in Giedion’s original wording: whether you feel that they can play the role of commodities or not, isn’t it odd to think of animals as objects?

This isn’t simply a matter of semantics. The 2009 swine flu pandemic, for instance, was caused by the H1N1 virus, which researchers at Columbia University later determined to be related to strains first isolated in US pig factory farms in 1998. These viruses subsequently circulated amongst the country’s large and mobile hog stocks – a process which Science termed “an evolutionary fast track” for the virus – before hybridising with strains isolated in Europe and Asia to produce the zoonosis H1N1. It is, Wallace argues, a story that highlights “swine flu” as an essentially misleading name. “[Pigs] have very little to do with how influenza emerges,” he states, instead laying the blame for H1N1 upon industrial systems that cast animals as designed objects. “They didn’t organize themselves into cities of thousands of immuno-compromised pigs. They didn’t artificially select out the genetic variation that could have helped reduce the transmission rates[...] They don’t ship themselves thousands of miles by truck, train, or air. Pigs do not naturally fly. The onus must be placed on the decisions we humans made to organize them this way.”

Zoonotic epidemics are not simply things that happen to us – they’re reflections of our actions on the environment and corollaries of the systems that we have designed around animal life. If we would like to reduce their future likelihood, those systems require amendment. In terms of epidemiology, not a bad place to start would be to consider the “worldview” of a pathogen, which frames the divide between human and other animal bodies in a radically different manner to the consumer/product relationship described above. “[Taxonomic] barriers that we place on species are constructs of our own scientific systems, not nature,” explains Wolfe. “If two different hosts share sufficiently similar bodies and immune systems, the bug will move between them irrespective of how a museum curator would separate them.” In other words, if The War of the Worlds were concerned with scientific accuracy, its pathogens would not pass into the Martians as some kind of heroic Earth resistance (as Wells’s honorific “our microscopic allies” may suggest), but only because Martian biology is sufficiently similar to that of terrestrial species to make spillover viable. To a microbe, there is no meaningful difference between wildlife, farmed life, industrially designed life and human life – all are of a piece provided that their bodies serve as sites for reproduction.

This notion of bodies as environments, however, goes missing when we conceive of animals as goods to be handled as we might any other. Whether through wildlife markets’ transportation of myriad species into a dense commercial setting, or industrial agriculture’s subjection of animal bodies to the meat grinder of Taylorism and its successors (a process that, both conceptually and literally, is designed to erase the difference between an animal body and meat), these spaces do little to acknowledge the similarity of humans and other animals as living beings, and the shared biological susceptibilities that result from this. “Even when dead, the hog largely refuses to submit to the machine,” said Giedion of the challenges of completely automatising the slaughter process to deal with the physical awkwardness of its “object”. It’s not what Giedion meant, but perhaps this should be taken as a sign that bodies simply aren’t good candidates for mass industrialisation and commodification? Alongside their spatial complexity, animals have an epidemiological complexity too. Dare I suggest that there might also be an ethical complexity? The world may need to eat, but that’s not the same thing as agreeing that animal bodies are meet for commodification.

In taking aim at agribusiness’s treatment of livestock, Wallace asks whether “the resulting profits [are] defensible at such a rapidly accruing [epidemiological] cost?” In some respects, this is a question for design. Certainly, there is a design problem: the spaces in which we come into contact with animals need to be reimagined urgently, and in such a way as to properly grapple with the realities of the bodies which they contain. Thankfully, there is plenty of literature out there as to how we might go about achieving this. “[A] zoonosis may spill over more readily within a disrupted, fragmented ecosystem than within an intact, diverse ecosystem,” notes Quamman, suggesting that many of the methods being discussed to protect environments threatened by climate collapse would be epidemiologically helpful too. Similarly, Wallace sets out some initial ideas for a more socially equitable form of “locale-specific” agriculture that may curb agribusiness without slipping into prelapsarian fantasy, ensuring that spaces are “flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social, and epidemiological landscapes on the ground, interconnecting ecology and economy.” This would need considerable elaboration and reflection before it could serve as a useful blueprint, but at least it’s an idea which acknowledges there are factors worth considering beyond scale of production. There would be much work to do, then, but it would be surprising if architects and designers were unable to offer some modest improvements on our present systems and spaces.

Conversely, in real-world conditions not all design problems admit of design solutions. The discipline can play a small role in shaping its own briefs and selecting the criteria to which it responds, but much of the vital work falls into the realms of politics, economics, and culture, and their capacity to change values surrounding animal life. “CITES, the international treaty that is meant to regulate trade of endangered animals,” notes Love Nuwer in Poached, “includes fewer than 10 percent of known reptiles and 8 percent of known birds in its appendixes.” Regulations around trafficking, when they exist, are often not enforced; annual global livestock shipments have increased by around 1bn animals since 2007; and habitat clearance by agribusiness continues largely unchecked. At the time of writing this article, for instance, a joint investigation by The Guardian, Unearthed and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that HSBC had underwritten close to $2bn worth of bonds over the last six years for three beef companies which have been heavily linked to Amazon deforestation. There seems little prospect of change on the horizon and this torpor will have epidemiological consequences. As Wells’s Martians almost once said: “As we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we’re getting their diseases.”

  1. And it is worth stressing that this is a worldwide problem, driven in no small part by international demand. The United States, for instance, is the second-largest illegal wildlife market after China. Anyone who watched Netflix’s Tiger King during lockdown should have some sense of this problem.
  2. One would hope that this paper describes a series of worst-case scenarios that have since improved, but even a significantly cleaned-up market dealing in wildlife would still face many of the issues described.