Book Club

The Chair read for you La fabrique des pandémies by Marie-Monique Robin

Published on 20 April 2021

The goal of Marie-Monique Robin’s Pandemics Factory [1], is to analyze the worldwide spread of the Covid-19, by characterizing the social and historical context that led to the current situation. She relied on several interview with researchers in the biology and epidemiology fields to support the thesis that the emergence of new viruses and bacteria is inherently linked to human activity. In other words, this book intends to show that the current crisis is not completely unique, and that it could have been anticipated and avoided. She identified four main factors causing the apparition of new diseases: deforestation, the fragmentation of natural spaces, urbanization and globalization. Together, these processes are agued to induce a general disturbance of ecosystems, setting the ground for animal viruses to mutate and acquire the ability to spread among humans. The main takeaway is that vaccines are not a durable solution to such sanitary crises, since new pandemics will keep occurring if these factors are not placed under control. Overall, this collection of interviews questions the western development model, based on the exploitation of nature and the expansion of trade to satisfy human needs. The link established between the destruction of biodiversity and the emergence of new pathogens is crucial to justify the public policy proposals found in the concluding chapters.

Her position is in a large part substantiated by research work on “emerging viruses”, initiated in the 70s by biologists like Stephen Morse, who then went against the scientific consensus on the disappearance of infectious diseases. The second half of the 20th century had indeed witnessed the fight against deadly viruses like smallpox come to an end thanks to widespread vaccines, and it was assumed to be a closed topic.  As new viruses appeared in the 80s, like Ebola of the Lassa fever, new vaccines were developed. Each one of these pandemics was dealt with and treated as a sanitary emergency, without much thought given the causes behind their emergence, which was highly condemned by these virologists. The core issue discussed in this book is directly in line with their work: how can we explain that zoonotic diseases, which have been around for centuries, suddenly become transmissible to humans? This issue is tackled based on an “ecological” vision of emergence, which does not assume humans to be solely victims of these viruses, but rather posits that human activity is a key factor behind their mutation. This analysis implies that a steep decline in activities that endanger the biosphere is necessary, following a preventive logic instead of simple precaution. The idea of precaution is in fact limited to warding off known evils, relying on vaccines and medical treatments. On the contrary, the concept of prevention has a larger scope, as it requires policy makers to anticipate the worst case scenarios, and to act on their causes to prevent emergence. The standards tools used in biology and medicine are no longer sufficient: statistics and gene sequencing are useless to prepare against a virtually unlimited number of potential mutations of an even greater number of animal viruses and bacteria. Public policies and means of actions appear to be less concrete at first, but this book aims to demonstrate otherwise.

The first step towards an answer consists in assessing how human activity may be linked to the mutation of animal pathogens. The results drawn by disease ecologists are extensively used to demonstrate this causal link. Deforestation and intensive livestock production are put forward as the two main factors leading to the mutation and spread of viruses that used to only affect wild fauna. The case of the Nipah virus infection is for instance more extensively described to illustrate the underlying mechanism. It used to be carried only by wild fruit-eating bats, that were chased from their natural habitat by deforestation. They consequently moved to the surroundings of large hog farms in Malaysia, where they fed on the neighboring trees. Through repeated contact, the infection then spread to the pigs, which transmitted it to one another before it mutated again and became transmissible to humans.  The novelty of this approach is that it places anthropic factors at the very beginning of the emergence process, instead of assuming mutations are simply random. This line of arguments has been particularly pushed by Serge Morand, who has notably established a link between the location of emergence clusters and increased deforestation since the 90s. The conclusion drawn at this point is that pandemics can arise at any moment, and that we are not able to characterize them – and thus plan the standard response to sanitary crises – before they are actually happening. Public deciders should thus redirect their action on their causes, in particular deforestation. The protection of untouched natural spaces, in particular by limiting road building, is also presented as an effective prevention tool, as well as putting an end to intensive breeding. Because of their very limited gene pool and their cramped living conditions, farmed animals act as a bridge between wildlife and human kind in terms of disease transmission. Humid markets similar to the ones found in Wuhan, where live animals, both wild and domestic, are confined in very small spaces and ultimately end up as human consumption, are far from being the only potential clusters – even though they are obvious candidates.

Once the way how the destruction of ecosystems may place humans in contact with new pathogens is established, the second part of the book aims to show how it might also make us more vulnerable to them. Is biodiversity in itself useful to protect human health? Marie-Monique Robin argued the positive using the dilution effect, which was initially conceptualized by US researchers to find a rationale for the recent propagation of the Lyme disease. Their goal was to explain why a virus that had been around for centuries without causing a major number of infections among humans would suddenly become such a health hazard. The core mechanism they exposed relies on the regulation of the population of small rodents, who are the principal hosts of the virus. In theories, predators like foxes or owls keep them from proliferating, and in that way protect human health. As farming, hunting and urbanization have considerably reduced the living spaces of such predators, causing a decrease in their numbers, the USA finds itself facing an overpopulation of mice, leading to a much wider propagation of the Lyme disease. This result has been replicated to other environments where the number of Lyme cases had seen a steep increase, for instance in Kenya where it was linked back to the disappearance of marsupials, who feed on both ticks and mice. Showing how a diverse ecosystem may directly protect human health implies another set of efficient public policies, such as the diversification of cultures and the limitation of pesticide and fertilizer usage. The emphasis is especially put on the damages caused by intensive farming, and their drastic consequences on overall human health.

After establishing the underlying causes of the emergence of new pandemics, the final chapters turn to more specific public policy proposals, aiming to define a “worldwide health ecology”. The goal of any political action is set to reaching the best possible state of health all over the globe, by defining strict environmental limitations to human activities. This principle defines a new political ethics, which would not put the priority on the development of human societies, but rather on the conservation of the global equilibrium of ecosystems. It is in part inspired by the traditions and philosophies of indigenous peoples, opposing our western, counting-based vision of ecology aiming to put the wild fauna and flora under control, and their holistic approach, described to be prioritizing the protection of the natural order of things. The health of the biosphere should be the main concern of policy makers, which means designing human activity around the protection of nature and not the extraction of resources. In particular, the interview with the social scientist Safa Motesharrei goes deeper into the idea of a global collapse, stressing how urgently strong environmental policies are needed. The Codiv-19 pandemics is presented as no more than a telltale sign of the fragility of human organizations, and of an erosion process that has already started. Biosecurity measures come under fire, as they directly caused a loss of biodiversity since the worldwide harmonizing of livestock has led local poultry, pig and cattle breeds to extinction. It is further argued that sustainable policies should always include the protection of natural spaces as well as the reduction of social inequalities. Ending poverty is put forward as a crucial policy goal, in particular to help decrease the consumption of bush meat, whether it was acquired through regulated hunting or poaching. Following this logic, the implication of local communities is essential to preserve the natural balance, by opposition to the current agricultural management policies, designed and implemented by national or supranational organizations. The book concludes on the benefits of agroecology to structure agricultural activities, on top of policies prohibiting the destruction of wild fauna and flora, and on the critical importance of social dialogue to design reasonable public policies.

Esther Raineau-Rispal, Ph.D. candidate Market structure, strategic behaviors and economic incentives of firms in the construction industry.

[1] La Fabrique des pandémies – préserver la biodiversité, un impératif pour la santé planétaire, Marie-Monique Robin, éditions « La Découverte ».