Philippe Grandcolas, specialist in the evolution of fauna and the behavior of dictyopterous insects, is research director at CNRS and laboratory director at the National Museum of Natural History. According to him, the health crisis due to the new coronavirus is the moment or never to address the question of our poor relationship with our natural environment.
What do you think is the correlation between the decline in biodiversity and the emergence of diseases like Covid-19?
People think that viruses have always existed, that epidemics have nothing to do with the state of biodiversity or climate change. However, for several decades, they have been increasing. They do not have the huge impact of the Covid-19, but their frequency is accelerating. The majority are zoonoses: diseases produced by the transmission of a pathogen between animals and humans. The pioneers of work on parasites have been studying them since the beginning of the XXe century. But the awareness of their link with ecology in the scientific sense of the term dates from forty to fifty years ago.
Today, we know it is not just a medical problem. The emergence of these infectious diseases corresponds to our growing hold on natural environments. We deforest, we bring wild animals hunted from their natural habitat into contact with domestic livestock in unbalanced ecosystems, close to peri-urban areas. Infectious agents are thus offered new chains of transmission and possible recompositions.
One can quote SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, due to a coronavirus resulting from the combination of virus of a bat and another small carnivorous mammal, relatively quickly suppressed at the beginning of the years 2000. The epidemic of AIDS, often caricatured in an unhealthy manner, presents a similar trajectory: contamination of primates, then transmission to hundreds of millions of people. Ebola is a little less scary because it is believed that its range is limited to a few endemic areas. In reality, its virulence is so terrible that this affection is less easily spread because the population dies on the spot. Again, the starting point is a bat.
These days, some would no doubt be tempted to eradicate bats and pangolins, suspected of having served as a reservoir for the coronavirus …
Unfortunately, the dramatic period that we are going through could exacerbate human Manichaeism, pushing some people to want to get rid of all biodiversity. In reality, it’s worse: we just don’t know that the origin of the Covid-19 epidemic is linked to the upheavals that we are imposing on biodiversity. The silence on this point is deafening.