Are We on the Cusp of a Pandemic Flu?

The new year has started off with a bang—and maybe a pandemic flu.
Late last year, officials in China were troubled over a spike in cases of a never-before-seen pneumonia-like illness now known as coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that by the end of the first week of January, 59 people had been infected with the new virus, which causes fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing—and the death toll continues to rise. The SARS outbreak of 2003 had similar beginnings. Eventually, SARS claimed over 800 lives, spread to several countries, and required worldwide measures to control it. Now, officials say that the virus behind this latest outbreak is from the same family as the one that caused SARS, and they are watching it very closely.
The question is where will coronavirus, which has already caused hospitalizations, spread before it runs its course? And how many lives will it claim?
The CDC is focused on one source of coronavirus in particular: animals sold for food. Workers in hazmat suits promptly shut down and disinfected a market in Wuhan, China, after the city health department traced several cases to the market, which sells fish, chickens, bats, marmots, and other farmed and wild animals. The CDC has warned travelers to Wuhan to “avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals. With the Lunar New Year around the corner, when travel increases throughout the country, officials are worried the virus will spread further.
Given how common animal-borne disease outbreaks have become and how disruptive and dangerous they can be for consumers, businesses, and animals, it’s disappointing that the most frequent response for prevention is to make industrial animal farms and animal markets “even more biosecure, rather than address the root cause of these epidemics: the exploitation of animals for food. Instead, we should be moving away from using animals for food and especially from industrialized animal agriculture.
In our current, broken food system, even with additional biosecurity measures, disease always finds a way. After all, these farms are dark, dank, and densely populated, with animals crowded in filthy, stressful conditions—the perfect breeding ground for disease. All it takes is one bacterium or virus on a shirt cuff or boot to trigger a disease that spreads through a factory farm like wildfire.
We now have two choices.
The first is to maintain the status quo: keep packing more and more animals into closer and closer quarters, employing an arsenal of protective measures—from requiring biohazard suits for visitors to routinely dosing animals with antibiotics—all to meet the caloric demands of a population set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. We can hope for the best and prepare for the worst, including the real possibility that these diseases could cause a global human pandemic.
The second is to take a cold, hard look at our food system and think critically about what it gives us in exchange for what it takes from us. In crucial regions like China, where half the world’s pigs, a third of the world’s chickens, and 60 percent of the world’s farmed fish are raised, this question could not be more pressing.
In this current outbreak, the Chinese government has shut down (temporarily) the market selling chickens, fish, and other animals. The advice from the CDC is (temporarily) not to eat animal products in the region or go to animal markets. But what if this weren’t temporary advice? What if, instead, we ripped off the temporary bandage and dealt with the underlying festering problem: the use of animals for food, especially via industrialized animal agriculture. With the development of plant-based and cultivated meat, we have a solution. It’s time to start investing in that path, instead of in hazmat suits, disinfectants, and drugs.