A Short History of Deadly Viruses from China
Ring around the Rosie. Pocket full of poesy. Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.
14th century Nursery rhyme from the Black Death
History gives us a useful context into which to place current events. Remember, there is nothing really new under the sun and what we think is unique has happened in some form already. A curious fact is that the majority of deadly pandemic viruses that have wreaked havoc and death across the world originate in China. Here is a brief summary of these pandemics and a little bit about why they overwhelming originate from China.
541 A.D.: Justinian Plague
Originating in China , the plague (Yersinia pestis) was carried to the Great Lakes region of Africa via overland and sea trade routes. The point of origin for Justinian’s plague was Egypt. https://www.ancient.eu/article/782/justinians-plague-541-542-ce/ The Justinian plague spread through Palestine and the Byzantine Empire, and then throughout the Mediterranean.
The plague changed the course of the empire, squelching Emperor Justinian’s plans to bring the Roman Empire back together and causing massive economic struggle. It is also credited with creating an apocalyptic atmosphere that spurred the rapid spread of Christianity. Recurrences over the next two centuries eventually killed about 50 million people, 26 percent of the world population. It is believed to be the first significant appearance of the bubonic plague, which features enlarged lymphatic gland and is carried by rats and spread by fleas.
1350: The Black Death
Gene sequencing, from which scientists can gather hereditary data of organisms, has revealed that the Black Death, often referred to as The Plague, which reduced the world’s total population by about 100 million, originated from China over 2000 years ago, scientists from several countries wrote in the medical journal Nature Genetics. Genome sequencing has allowed the researchers to reconstruct plague pandemics from the Black Death to the late 1800s. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/206309#1 Responsible for the death of one-third of the world population, this second large outbreak of the bubonic plague moved west in caravans. Entering through Sicily in 1347 A.D. when plague sufferers arrived in the port of Messina, it spread throughout Europe rapidly. Dead bodies became so prevalent that many remained rotting on the ground and created a constant stench in cities.
1855: The Third Plague Pandemic
Starting in China and moving to India and Hong Kong, the bubonic plague claimed 15 million victims. Initially spread by fleas during a mining boom in Yunnan, the plague is considered a factor in the Parthay rebellion and the Taiping rebellion. India faced the most substantial casualties, and the epidemic was used as an excuse for repressive policies that sparked some revolt against the British.
1918 Spanish Flu
1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million [possibly] originated in China The deadly “Spanish flu” claimed more lives than World War I, which ended the same year the pandemic struck. Now, new research is placing the flu’s emergence in a forgotten episode of World War I: the shipment of Chinese laborers across Canada in sealed train cars. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/1/140123-spanish-flu-1918-china-origins-pandemic-science-health/ Historian Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland says that newly unearthed records confirm that one of the side stories of the war—the mobilization of 96,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines on World War I’s Western Front—may have been the source of the pandemic. The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States. What was unique and terrifying about this virus is that it killed younger, healthy people, as shown below.
1957 Asian Flu and 1968 Hong Kong Flu
The 2003 epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed 774 people, nearly all of them in mainland China, was traced to palm civets sold as exotic meat in southern Chinese food markets. The virus behind a deadly 1997 bird flu outbreak that fatally infected at least 18 people in Hong Kong is believed to have originated among fowl raised in southern mainland China — the source of virtually all poultry in the Chinese territory.
There are two reasons why China is the source of most deadly pandemics: international trade and wildlife farming/live animal markets. Trade is the main ‘vector’ by which the plagues above have spread, going back to the Roman Empire. While the same unsafe farming/live animal markets exist in Africa as China that continent has now, and historically, had much less trade and movement of people than across Asia. Furthermore, because of high population density, many epidemiologists point to some fundamental facts about China as being pandemic prone: the proximity of urban and rural dwellers and the slaughterhouses and urban markets where animals are freshly butchered. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/world/asia/china-epidemics-coronavirus.html
The dangerous cross species transfer of viruses mostly come from China because both today and historically they have farming practices that make this transfer almost inevitable. For example, the Guardian recently reported:
“For the past few years China’s leadership has pushed the idea that “wildlife domestication” should be a key part of rural development, eco-tourism and poverty alleviation. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering on the development of the wildlife farming industry valued the wildlife-farming industry those operations at 520bn yuan, or £57bn.
Just weeks before the outbreak, China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) was still actively encouraging citizens to get into farming wildlife such as civet cats – a species pinpointed as a carrier of Sars, a disease similar to Covid-19. The SFGA regulates both farming and trade in terrestrial wildlife, and quotas of wildlife products – such as pangolin scales – allowed to be used by the Chinese medicine industry. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/25/coronavirus-closures-reveal-vast-scale-of-chinas-secretive-wildlife-farm-industry
This begs the question, was Covid19 avoidable? Of course! Sars was the result of a similar cross species transfer of a virus from a wild animal to people in a ‘wet’ market:
“After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was traced to a wet market in the southern Guangdong Province, a temporary ban on wet markets and the wild-animal industry were put in place. In July of that year, the World Health Organization declared the SARS virus contained, and in August the Chinese government lifted the ban. Wet markets are found the world over, typically open-air sites selling fresh meat, seafood, and produce. The meats often are butchered and trimmed on-site. Markets in China have come in for justifiable condemnation because of the way they’ve evolved, commingling traditional livestock with a wide variety of wild animals, including exotic and endangered species. Many are quite unsanitary, with blood, entrails, excrement, and other waste creating the conditions for disease that migrates from animals to people through virus, bacteria, and other forms of transmission. Such “zoonotic diseases” that have emerged from China and other regions of the world include Ebola, HIV, bird flu, swine flu, and SARS. The wild animals that mix with more common livestock — poultry, swine, and seafood — form a deadly combination. And, as has been well reported by Vox and others, wild-animal farming has a long history in China.” https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/03/the-chinese-wild-animal-industry-and-wet-markets-must-go/
So, the truth is that without the worldwide elimination of ‘wet’ markets, including those in Africa, we are sure to have another outbreak like or [probably] worse than Covid19 . A final note – the Covid-19 virus does not compare to these viruses in terms of its death rate. It also rarely strikes younger, healthy people. The covid-19 death rate is estimated at perhaps 1% [we won’t know for sure until we have good data, which is hard to come by] while the black death killed up to 50% of people. So really, there is no need for most of us to panic. Let’s just follow social distancing and hand washing protocols and most of us will be fine. When we do this we are protecting the vulnerable – an essential act for a civilized society.
Civet cats – thought to be potential carriers of Sars – are among the animals farmed for meat in China.