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Commentary: Eating habits & epidemics

By Milton Saier and Dr. Lakshmi Reddy

Viruses, the living dead, are the greatest villains in a “no man’s land.”  For millions of years, we have been at war with these zombie particles.

It’s not just our naïve immune systems that learn lessons from them, they learn from us too. Viruses, particularly RNA viruses, such as SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2, have extraordinary abilities to mutate and change their genes, thereby jumping the species barrier to expand their range of victims.

Our eating habits have caused preventable epidemics.

Environmental sustainability can be achieved in part through eating plants instead of animals, and we eat far more animal products than is good for us.

Plants have all the good things nature has to offer, and there may be good reasons why they seem to lack pain receptors.

Major religious, philosophical, cultural and scientific groups around the world profess that we should respect animal life, but animals are still slaughtered for food eaten by billions of people.

Fortunately, we can dramatically reduce the incidence of transmissible diseases while improving our lives, minimizing our morbidities, and extending our lifespans.

SARS:  Over 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. SARS, which caused the 2002 epidemic, was caused by a corona virus, SARS-CoV.

It arose in Guangdong Province, China, and then spread around the world, with a case fatality ratio of 6%-15%. Most patients in the initial stages of infection were known to have lived near produce markets, and as many as 40% of early SARS-CoV patients were food handlers.

The virus was traced to wild animals, a palm civet, a raccoon dog and a ferret-badger.  There is little doubt that the virus jumped from bats to these animals, and then to humans.

Why are bats often the initial reservoir of viruses?  These little furry flying mammals have been demonized for ages in folklore, witchcraft and horror stories.

Bats also instill in us a different kind of horror by harboring deadly viruses.  Surprisingly, they are unaffected by pathogens that normally sicken and kill other mammals.

Peng Zhou of the Wuhan Institute of Virology reported that bats “learned” to live with viruses to avoid mistakenly attacking their own tissue by muting their immune systems.

MERS:  In 2012, a novel corona virus appeared in Saudi Arabia with a higher fatality rate (~35%) than SARS and was designated MERS-CoV.

Bats were again found to have provided initial reservoirs, but humans were most likely infected through an intermediate host, possibly the camel.

Pathogenicity and progression to respiratory failure were reported to be faster in MERS than SARS although the novel virus seemed to have a lower human to human transmission rate.

COVID-19: In January 2020, the first patients with a novel CoV-2 infection were diagnosed.

Many who developed COVID-19 had purchased animals from the Wuhan wet market which was probably the initial source of the virus and clearly facilitated its spread.

The genome of SARS-CoV-2 was found to be similar not only to SARS and bat coronaviruses, but also to coronaviruses present in wild Pangolins smuggled into China from Malaysia in 2017, possibly the intermediate host.

The current COVID-19 pandemic boasts over 6.5 million cases with 30% of all cases occurring in the U.S., although we have only 5% of the world’s population. 100,000 new cases and 5,000 deaths are reported daily.

Since there is no currently effective treatment or vaccine for any coronavirus disease, even after 18 years of research on SARS, we can anticipate that cures and vaccines for these and future viral diseases will not be easily developed.

Conclusions:  Numerous viruses are made “homeless,” due to the decline in all wild animal populations, resulting from hunting, deforestation, environmental degradation and anthropization.

Human overpopulation and carnivorous eating habits have enormously increased viral adaptation to humans.  Slaughtering wild animals and consuming endangered species should be banned altogether.

Undoubtedly, COVID- 19 will not be the last pandemic.  We can only hope that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will increase our awareness of emerging viruses so we can take necessary precautions by curbing our craving for meat and discover the rich nutrients in the varieties of seeds, leaves, vegetables and fruits of the plant world.

No known epidemic has resulted from the propagation of a plant virus.

We don’t all have to become vegans, but we can easily become predominant vegetarians.

And if we do, we shall live healthier, and longer quality lives.

Milton Saier is a professor of molecular biology at UCSD. Dr. Lakshmi Reddy is a teacher in Los Angeles.