Overview: Pandemics

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Author: Dr. Ronald St. John

Throughout history there have been outbreaks of infectious diseases. The well-known plague epidemic (Black Death) was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s, wiping out an estimated one-third of the population. Disease outbreaks, when large in scope, have been referred to as epidemics. More recently, epidemics that have involved or might involve the global population have been labelled as pandemics.

When does an epidemic become a pandemic? There is no single accepted definition of the term pandemic (ref: Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 200:7, 1 October 2009). Some considerations for labelling an outbreak as a pandemic include outbreaks of diseases:

  • that extend over large geographic areas, e.g., influenza, HIV/AIDS
  • that have high attack rates and explosiveness, e.g., common-source acquisition and highly contagious diseases with short incubation periods
  • that affect populations with minimal population immunity
  • that involve a new or novel version of an infectious agent – the term pandemic has been used most commonly to describe diseases that are new, or at least associated with novel variants of existing organisms, e.g., influenza.
  • that are highly contagious. Many, if not most, infectious diseases considered to be pandemic by public health officials are contagious from person to person
  • that have severe health consequences. The term pandemic has been applied to severe or fatal diseases

For purposes of this paper, a pandemic is an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.(1)

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COVID-19: An Intersectional Perspective

Over the past 2 weeks, I have collected a number of COVID-19 related articles. Many of these articles offer intersectional perspectives on COVID-19. I am sharing these here as these may be of interest to Project Save the World readers. I am additionally cross-posting this to the Overview: Enabling Measures section.

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Could the Coronavirus Be a Biological Weapon in the Not-Too-Distant Future?

By: Thalif Deen

The devastating spread of the deadly coronavirus across every continent– with the exception of Antarctica– has triggered a conspiracy theory on social media: what if the virus was really a biological weapon? And more specifically, was it an experimental weapon that accidentally escaped from a laboratory in China? Or as others contend, is it a weapon surreptitiously introduced to de-stabilize a country with more than 1.4 billion people and described as the world’s second largest economy, after the United States.

Both narratives are considered false, and probably part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, according to military experts. Still, in the US, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has repeated the charge that the virus was a creation of the Chinese military while others source it to North Korea. And US President Donald Trump has been roundly condemned for “a racist remark” after describing the deadly disease as “a Chinese virus.”

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Here’s to hoping that a vaccine is discovered soon, that would prevent COVID from being used as a biological weapon.

This collection of 3 articles from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists offers an interesting perspective on the interconnections between COVID-19 and nuclear-related industries. I am additionally cross-posting this list to Overview: (Mass) Radiation Exposure and Overview: Enabling Measures due to its relevance.

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COVID-19 Impact On Nuclear Disarmament

By: Earl Turcotte

That COVID-19 has created a new global reality is clear. If there is any positive aspect to this unfolding situation, it could be a deeper understanding of the fact that the well-being of people throughout the world is inextricably linked. The COVID crisis might also serve as a cautionary tale, helping us to appreciate the fragility of life and avoid threats to humanity that are within our control.

In 2019, a team of researchers at Princeton University simulated a limited exchange of low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons to depict “a plausible escalating war between the United States and Russia, using realistic nuclear force postures, targets, and fatality estimates.” They concluded that more than 90 million people would be killed or injured within a few hours and many more would die in the years following.

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Interesting article! I had never previously thought about the intersections of nuclear disarmament and COVID.

Coronavirus in Eastern DR Congo: Conflicts and Humanitarian Crisis

Amani Institute | 4 May 2020

As the Coronavirus pandemic accelerates in Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is increasingly affected. Fear is gaining ground, especially in the east of the country, where numerous armed groups are fueling the humanitarian crisis. The local non-profit organization Amani-Institute ASBL indicates that displaced populations are particularly vulnerable because of their material living conditions resulting from armed violence. Fearing more amplified risks in the province of North Kivu, this socio-cultural movement of young volunteers has already launched the challenge of intervening in the camps for internally displaced persons to raise their awareness of preventive measures and the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic but also solidarity and non-violent communication in this time of crisis.

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Perhaps there’s a way for the international community to impose some sort of truce until COVID-19 is solved, or there is a suitable vaccine that can be delivered to everyone.

Stopping Deforestation Can Prevent Pandemics

From: Scientific American | 1 May 2020

“SARS, Ebola and now SARS-CoV-2: all three of these highly infectious viruses have caused global panic since 2002—and all three of them jumped to humans from wild animals that live in dense tropical forests.

Three quarters of the emerging pathogens that infect humans leaped from animals, many of them creatures in the forest habitats that we are slashing and burning to create land for crops, including biofuel plants, and for mining and housing. The more we clear, the more we come into contact with wildlife that carries microbes well suited to kill us—and the more we concentrate those animals in smaller areas where they can swap infectious microbes, raising the chances of novel strains. Clearing land also reduces biodiversity, and the species that survive are more likely to host illnesses that can be transferred to humans. All these factors will lead to more spillover of animal pathogens into people.”

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It’s interesting how protecting the environment actually helps the human race as well…if only we had figured this out sooner. It seems other cultures did, like Indigenous communities.

COVID-19 Underscores Vulnerability of Remote Communities

“Donny Morris faced an extra hurdle as he raced to keep his tiny, fly-in community safe, healthy and stocked with crucial supplies in the face of the COVID-19 crisis: an unusually warm winter and an early closure for a 700-kilometre ice road in northern Ontario.

Morris (left) is chief of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) Reserve, an Oji-Cree community of 1,700 people nestled on the shores of Big Trout Lake, 580 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. His leadership is vital to keeping the novel coronavirus out of the community, while ensuring members of KI have enough supplies to get them through the months ahead.

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What more can be done to help Northern Communities in Canada?

Well for one, the government could collaborate more with Indigenous communities in Canada to address the issues they face. Unfortunately, under Trudeau’s government they haven’t done so.

COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories of Canada

This opinion piece on COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories of Canada is quite interesting. It is alarming to hear that diamond mines in the territory are being kept open as essential services. Notably, mining is a big component of the Northwest Territories’ economy and how much of a decision this played in decisions to keep the mines open has yet to be determined. Parallels may be drawn to other regions of Canada, such as the oil extraction industry in Alberta, which is still operating despite the pandemic – as well as other global regions. There is further precedent for mines and mining camps being a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, per the example at Kearl Lake, Alberta. Significant challenges have additionally arisen in Alberta due to regional flooding.

It is additionally alarming to hear that the entirety of the Northwest Territories only has 6 intensive care (ICU) hospital beds. Many Northern communities are known to have limited access to medical supplies, even during non-pandemic times.

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The Interconnection of Conflicts, War and Covid-19

“UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s plea to ‘silence the guns’ would create corridors for lifesaving aid and open windows for diplomacy in the war-torn zones in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the central areas of Africa.” -The Hill Times, 6 April 2020: EDMONTON-

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.” In one short sentence, UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the door to a new understanding of what constitutes human security. Will governments seize the opportunity provided by the immense crisis of COVID-19 to finally adopt a global agenda for peace?

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Pandemic Could Affect Food Supplies, Power Grids, Telecommunications

“If cases of COVID-19 continue to multiply, labour shortages could affect food supplies and undermine Canada’s critical infrastructure, an internal government briefing note obtained by CBC News warns.

The document, prepared by Public Safety Canada, says accelerating rates of illness among Canadians could create labour shortages in essential services. The two most “pressing” areas of concern, it says, are procurement of medical goods and the stability of the food supply chain. “These shortages are likely to have the greatest impact in the two sectors mentioned above, as it will affect our ability to provide health care and essential goods, including food, to Canadians,” notes the document.

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This article from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discusses coronavirus (COVID-19) in conflict zone settings – and may be of interest to readers of Project Save the World.

Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape
By: Brown, Frances Z. and Blanc, Jarrett
Published in: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
14 April 2020

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How Far Away Is Safe in COVID-19?

“What is a safe distance when running, biking and walking during COVID-19 times? It is further than the typical 1–2 meter as prescribed in different countries!

In a lot of countries walking, biking and jogging are welcome activities in these times of COVID-19. However, it is important to note that you need to avoid each other’s slipstream when doing these activities. This comes out of the result of a study by the KU Leuven (Belgium) and TU Eindhoven (Netherlands).

The typical social distancing rule which many countries apply between 1–2 meters seems effective when you are standing still inside or even outside with low wind. But when you go for a walk, run or bike ride you better be more careful. When someone during a run breathes, sneezes or coughs, those particles stay behind in the air. The person running behind you in the so-called slip-stream goes through this cloud of droplets.

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This is why you should always wear a face mask, even when you’re adequately social distancing. You never know!

Superbugs in the Air! Garbage Spreads Antibiotic Resistance

By: Ian Angus

“In my recent Monthly Review article, Superbugs in the Anthropocene, I discussed the growth of the antibiotic resistome, the worldwide pool of genes that enable bacteria to resist antibiotics. Such genes can concentrate in environmental hot spots, where resistance can easily spread.”

“Hot spots, in soil and water as well as in hospitals, factories, sewage-treatment plants, and factory farms, provide excellent conditions for the spread of multidrug-resistant bacteria in local ecosystems and around the world.”

Add municipal landfills to that list.

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Farmers Destroying Food Products Because of COVID-19

Linked below is an interesting article discussing the implications of COVID-19 on agricultural industries, particularly within the context of the United States of America. It is alarming to hear that farmers are destroying food products – as many clients – such as restaurants – are shut due to the pandemic. The article specifically mentions how 80% of Florida-grown tomatoes usually end up at restaurants. Some farmers are selling these at bulk to individual consumers at very low prices, however the vast majority of several crops (including tomatoes and zucchinis among others) are being allowed to rot. The article additionally mentions a situation in the Central and Northeastern regions of the United States of America where farmers have been destroying milk products due to COVID-19. This is alarming to hear considering the high levels of food insecurity in a number of global regions.

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This is so sad. There must be a way to donate the food or to organize a system where people struggling to feed there families can receive some of these crops!

China Censors Information on the Coronavirus

Here are some excerpts:

1) “YY, a live-streaming platform in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, a day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus.

2) WeChat broadly censored coronavirus-related content (including critical and neutral information) and expanded the scope of censorship in February 2020. Censored content included criticism of government, rumours and speculative information on the epidemic, references to Dr. Li Wenliang, and neutral references to Chinese government efforts on handling the outbreak that had been reported on state media.

3) Many of the censorship rules are broad and effectively block messages that include names for the virus or sources for information about it. Such rules may restrict vital communication related to disease information and prevention.”

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China is not the only one. There are so many other governments that censor information as well. Like Brazil!

What Latin American Countries Are Doing to Confront Coronavirus

By: David A. Wemer

“As governments in North America, Europe, Asia, and around the world continue to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Latin American leaders are stepping up their efforts as cases are beginning to be documented in their countries. Although the number of cases across the region remains mostly lower than the epicenters in Europe and the United States, “we are not letting our guard down,” El Salvador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandra Hill Tinoco said on March 23. “No one can guarantee us that it is not going to hit us,” she explained, so every Latin American government is taking the threat seriously.

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How the Coronavirus Outbreak is like a Nuclear Attack

“One thing about nuclear command and control, which the virus outbreak underscores, is that it is so hard to get good information in a crisis. The epidemic spiraled out of control so quickly in certain countries that even the best experts were rushing to figure out what was going on. To me the danger of a nuclear war is not that somebody’s going to get up one morning and say, “Ah, fuck it,” and push the button. It’s that we’re deeply flawed as human beings, and we have imperfect information, and we’re always trying to make decisions under complexity. And I think you saw the same things here. There was enough uncertainty early on that people could argue about how contagious the virus is, or how deadly it is. That uncertainty hampered the response at a critical moment.”

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African Elections in the Time of Coronavirus

By: Luke Tyburski

“African elections slated for 2020 are already being affected by COVID-19, with the potential for delays and disruptions to have significant impact on election credibility, political trust, and adherence to term limits across the continent.

In a year of high-profile elections across the continent, logistical preparations are already ongoing and were meant to be ratcheting up in places like Ghana, which is slated for presidential polls in December, and Ethiopia, where parliamentary polls are set for August. Both countries still need to prepare the voter roll, but bans on public gatherings have flipped electoral timelines on their head.”

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What Does the Coronavirus Mean for Africa?

The majority of the media articles and perspectives which I have seen shared and discussed on popular and social media are focused on developed nations. The Atlantic Council offers this interesting article around the impacts of COVID-19 [coronavirus] on Africa.

It is particularly concerning to consider the impacts of COVID-19 on slum communities that may have limited medical resources and capability to facilitate self-isolation. An estimated 40% of Africans live in water-stressed environments – leading to limitations with disinfection measures, such as hand-washing with water and soap.

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A correction: Not all areas in Africa are developing and there are certainly developed regions on the continent as well.

It will be interesting to see if these trends continue for other developing regions, such as remote areas of Latin America and the South Pacific.

Six Reasons the Kremlin Spreads Disinformation About the Coronavirus

By: Jakub Kalensky

“A recent internal report published by the European Union’s diplomatic service revealed that pro-Kremlin media have mounted a “significant disinformation campaign” about the COVID-19 pandemic aimed at Europe. Previous statements by Western officials, including acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Reeker, warning of the campaign suggested that its contours were already visible by the end of February 2020.
The Kremlin’s long-term strategic goal in the information sphere is enduring and stable: undermining Western unity while strengthening Kremlin influence. Pro-Kremlin information operations employ six complementary tactics to achieve that goal, and the ongoing disinformation campaign on COVID-19 is no exception.

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One potential victim of coronavirus? Nuclear inspections in Iran

By: George M. Moore

“Should the new IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi decide to suspend inspection visits to protect the health of his inspectors, it could metastasize concerns about Iranian nuclear proliferation. The same result would occur if Iran acted unilaterally to bar inspectors based on real or manufactured concerns about further spread of Covid-19.

To date, there is no public information about whether the IAEA will continue to send inspectors to Iran under the terms of the nuclear deal. Suspending inspections, even temporarily, could potentially leave a multi-month gap that Iran could exploit if it chose to fully break out of the nuclear agreement. In early March, the IAEA reported that Iran had amassed over 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, nearly triple the amount allowed under the deal.

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Coronavirus Forces Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference to Postpone

By: Tariq Rauf

“Harvard University epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch in his “very, very rough” estimate (relying on “multiple assumptions piled on top of each other”) has stated that 100 or 200 people were infected in the U.S. a week or so ago. But that is all it would take to widely spread the disease. Lipsitch has predicted that within a year, 40% to 70% of the world’s population could be infected with COVID-19? With the world’s population hovering around 7.5 billion, that translates to some 3 to 5 billion people getting COVID-19 and that perhaps fatalities of 60 to 100 million, according to Lipsitch.

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I am shocked China and other surrounding nations are not implementing stricter travel guidelines right now – given the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations and the newly emerged coronavirus. Is the massive influx of travelers worth the potential of another SARS-like epidemic? Millions of individuals will be arriving to a region with a still emerging infectious disease. Hopefully enough is understood about the new coronavirus to limit its spread during this festive time of year. It must be a difficult finding a balance between cultural tradition and public health.

The World Health Organization is scheduling an emergency meeting (in Geneva) on 22 January 2020 – three days before Chinese New Year. Talk about concerning variables!

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Unfortunately, Chinese New Year is often the only chance that Chinese people have time off and are able to visit their families that they haven’t seen in so long. That being said, no one knew how fast and dangerous Coronavirus was at the time- and there wasn’t adequate communication about the dangers of going home.

Pandemics and the Nuclear Threat Initiative

Important news relating to pandemics has been published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

It says “The Global Health Security (GHS) Index, a benchmark assessment of biosecurity preparedness across 195 countries produced by NTI and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is earning news media attention around the world in the wake of its recent launch. A Washington Post article on the index highlighted its findings and recommendations, and the paper’s editorial board noted that “the world flunked.” The GHS Index also has garnered coverage across 14 countries including reports in the UK’s Daily Mail, Singapore’s The Strait Times , South Africa’s The Herald, and India’s Press Trust of India.”

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Report says deadly pandemic could sweep world in 36 hours – killing millions

New Zealand Herald, 26 Oct, 2019 5:15pm

A major new report has found that the world is not prepared for the next global pandemic. A review of health care systems already in place across the world found just 13 countries had the resources to put up a fight against an “inevitable” pandemic.

Scientists warned that an outbreak of a flu-like illness could sweep across the planet in 36 hours and kill tens of millions due to our constantly-travelling population.

Among the countries ranked in the top tier were Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, France and Holland.
New Zealand had a lower ranking of “more prepared”, alongside European countries such as Spain, Russia, Italy and Germany.

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Interesting and timely article – given developments in the last few months. The site mentions you shared this 5 months ago – back in November 2019 – though COVID-19 did not emerge until December 2019.

“Global Health Security Index Identifies Major Gaps in Preparedness for Epidemics, Pandemics”

Nuclear Threat Initiative News, Oct 24, 2019.

Despite growing risks that infectious disease outbreaks can lead to international epidemics and pandemics, national health security is fundamentally weak around the world, and no country is fully prepared to handle a potentially catastrophic outbreak, according to the inaugural Global Health Security (GHS) Index released today.

A joint project from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health Security, with research by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the GHS Index is the first comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries.

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UC Davis gets $85 million to lead fight to prevent deadly Asian, African pandemics

By Cathie Anderson, The Sacramento Bee, October 10, 2019

The U.S. Agency for International Development gave the University of California, Davis, an $85 million vote of confidence with a five-year grant to train academic researchers in Asia and Africa in preventing animal diseases from spilling over into human populations, the university announced Wednesday.

Woutrina Smith, the principal investigator at UC Davis, said her team takes the view that humans don’t exist in isolation and that there’s a connection between the health of people, animals and the environment. They call this concept One Health, and medical and veterinary researchers at universities and nongovernmental agencies around the world are adopting it.

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Some good news! Glad to hear there’s funding to prevent pandemics.

Last edited 2 months ago by Cameron

Bacteriophages Instead of Failing Antibiotic Treatments

An interesting element to explore in more detail are organisms called bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that target bacteria rather than other cells. They are a branch of disease treatment which is potentially promising should conventional antibiotic treatments fail. The USSR – particularly Georgia – was considered a “stronghold” for research into phage therapy for decades. Only recently has this research and its application for difficult infections become more popular – beyond individual researchers – in countries outside the former USSR. The USA only opened its first Phage Therapy Research Center in 2018. Interestingly, one source of phages to use in this therapy are water treatment plants – as untreated water is considered a hotspot for undiscovered phages that have potential for medical applications. Application for phages include antibiotic resistant infections, as well as radiation burns where conventional treatments to kill infection may not be as effective. One limitation is the phages are quite species-specific and may only target one or two species of bacteria – so finding the right match is vital for patient care and ensuring effective treatment.
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An interesting historical overview of Georgia’s connection to phage therapy is available here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)66759-1/fulltext

Could These Bacteria Spread to Humans?

In 2015 – in Central Asia – about half of the world’s saiga antelope died in a matter of weeks. This totalled between 134 000 and 200 000 animals (though perhaps more). The culprit was a hemorrhagic septicemia induced by a bacteria (Pasteurella multocida) that is normally found in the respiratory tract of this species. It is unclear what caused the sudden leap in mortality and virulence. A similar incident occurred in 1988 – where 50 000 antelope died within the space of an hour. A research team lead by Dr. Richard Anthony Kock at the Royal Veterinarian Society is investigating intervention measures to prevent another similar incident from unfolding in the future.

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USSR’s Vozrozhdeniya Island: Deadliest Place on Earth?

An alarming BBC article about the legacy of the USSR’s Vozrozhdeniya Island – code name Aralsk-7 in the Cold War. Vozrozhdeniya (Rebirth or Renaissance Island) is located in the Aral Sea. It used to be an island with the town of Kantubek – but the retreating Aral Sea has greatly increased its accessibility to adjacent land.

“Aralsk-7 was part of a bioweapons program on an industrial scale.Now Vozrozhdeniya has swallowed up so much of the sea that it’s swelled to 10 times its original size, and is connected to the mainland by a peninsula. But it is thanks to another Soviet project that it is one of the deadliest places on the planet.”

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Ongoing Epidemic of Newcastle Virus in Toronto

Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto has had an ongoing epidemic of Newcastle virus in the cormorants since at least 2018. This is alarming as the municipal ward adjacent to Tommy Thompson Park recently approved “backyard chickens” — a program allowing homeowners to keep up to four chickens in their back yards.

Newcastle virus is highly contagious in avian species, with both neurological and respiratory symptoms. Some have compared it to SARS. Newcastle virus has previously jumped to humans via zoonoses, per a few cases in an Israeli poultry processing plant in the 1960s. It is unclear to me whether the MNR in Ontario has investigated such possibilities.

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Brilliant that Harvard is leading the way in this new inter-disciplinary approach. One Health integrates research from epidemiology, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, and environmental medicine — because our bodies integrate those phenomena too.

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