It is Boxing Day, and in line with government guidance on preventing the spread of COVID, we are settling down at home to read books and eat dates. Although a staple food in many parts of the Middle East, here in the UK dates are especially associated with the Christmas feast. Luckily I had ours in store before the UK’s borders closed last week. Accompanying this sugary treat, my holiday reading is Nathan Wolfe’s excellent 2011 book ‘The Viral Storm’. It sets out the various reasons why we humans are susceptible to viruses which come from other species – birds, bats, apes. Wolfe is not in the blame game and simply states how the human immune system has evolved and where its vulnerabilities lie.
Wolfe notes that most of us live in environments where ‘the dominant and notable forms of life are basically ourselves’, adding that almost everything we eat is cultivated, rather than gathered in the wild. In short that means that our microbiome, the colony of microbes which quietly inhabits our bodies, is adapted to allow us to live safely with each other, our pets, and the contents of our shopping bags. The flip side of this is that when we encounter the bodily fluids of bats, or monkeys or many other species, each of whom have their own unique microbiomes, we risk infection and under certain conditions, the rapid spread of disease from human to human.
Wolfe’s book is illuminating and terrifying in equal measure and popping another delicious date into my mouth I consider whether we might change our diet to slowly expand our microbiome. Perhaps we could include more foraged food as a hedge against the alien microbes that spark pandemics such as the one in which we now find ourselves? But this hardly seems practical at either the individual or societal level.
First wiping my fingers on a paper napkin, I switch to check my email. There waiting is an article by the archaeobotanists Mark Beech and Elizabeth Shepherd about the origins of domesticated date palms. (An anonymous algorithm presumably thought this might be of interest to me and it is.) The article cites evidence which suggests we have been cultivating these sticky treats since at least the fifth millennium BCE, somehow making it yet more unlikely that re-wilding our diet is the answer.
What about curtailing international travel? My son and his family live in Sweden and we have been unable to see them over the holidays due to COVID restrictions. On the question of travel, Wolfe points us to smallpox, which ‘probably killed more humans than any other virus that has ever infected our species’. It is thought to have appeared around 10,000 BCE when we first began to domesticate animals and was probably spread via trade routes. Given the continuing interdependence of the global economy, it seems unlikely that stopping personal travel to see our families offers much of an answer to the pandemic question either.
At the end of his book, Wolfe suggests something almost as radical. In the same way that the internet has created ‘a global nervous system’ he advocates for a digital ‘global immune system’. True international collaboration which combines viral listening posts, social networks, and inter-governmental information-feeds to create an early warning system that can stop the spread of a potentially pandemic disease before it takes hold.
It took us 10,000 years before we mustered the global cooperation necessary to eradicate smallpox. And even then it was a multi-decadal international effort with a clear shared goal. Yes, we each as individuals need to obey the rules on social distancing and mask wearing, but let’s not be lulled into thinking our future health lies in our own hands, sticky or otherwise. Like tackling climate change, the threat of this and future pandemics requires a systemic approach and we should be asking our governments to sit down together to figure it out, sooner rather than later. Now, where was I? Pass the dates please..