Of ducks, kebabs and deadly viruses

Published: Feb 11, 2020, 05:11 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

The mallard is a flying library of every flu virus ever known. Through its droppings, new viruses enter your meat. Burgers, anyone?

People wearing protective masks buy meat in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province. Pic /AFP
People wearing protective masks buy meat in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province. Pic /AFP

picWhat's the connection between a Siberian duck, the tandoori kebab you ate yesterday and the next lethal killer virus? How is your next burger connected to the next pandemic?

I'm going to join the many dots and show you a picture as unexpected as it is startling. It's a chilling forensic story of where viruses hide, how they emerge and spread from species to species, growing stronger along the way — and the unwitting role we play in it with our love of meat.

You may have seen photos of the mallard — it's the everyday duck you see in many ponds, brown, grey and black if female, but with a glossy Christmas green face and neck if male. It's adaptable to a wide range of climates and habitats, from the Arctic tundra to subtropical regions. It is found in both fresh- and salt-water wetlands, including parks, small ponds, rivers, lakes and estuaries. It would probably be a surprise not to find it in a country. It's the quintessential common duck, found from Alaska to Mexico, from Iceland and Greenland to Morocco, Scandinavia and Britain to the north, Siberia, Japan and South Korea in the east, and Australia and New Zealand far south.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies it as a species of least concern. It does not think the mallard is in any way endangered.
There's only one reason why I fear the mallard — It's a flying library of every kind of influenza A virus known to man. They live happily in its body, never sickening it, but emerging each time it shits or sheds anything.

In far-off Vietnam, Farmer Son's chickens and ducks have crossed the border and are foraging in the rice fields of Cambodian farmer Kalliyan, mingling with his ducks and chicken. Also present are a flock of migrating mallards, on their way to breeding grounds in some other country.

The mallards shit into the rice fields. Some of that is whooshed up by the ducks and chickens. Unknown to anyone, a flu virus, H7N9, now begins multiplying within poultry belonging to farmers from both countries. Fortunately for the birds, H7N9 does not sicken them though it will emerge in their shit and spit.

The livestock farmers, being poor, keep their pigs, cows, chicken and ducks all together in one place. Feed is thrown on the ground, which is covered with droppings from all four species. All the animals ingest H7N9 with their fodder.

One of these animals is special — the benign pig is a walking laboratory, welcoming viruses from any of the creatures around it, including humans. It seldom falls sick but within its body viruses can have an orgy of re-assortment and recombination.

Here, within the pig, H7N9 begins to mutate, creating millions of slightly changed copies of itself. Almost all will perish, having no survival value. But one day, by random chance, there might emerge an H7N9 that can infect human beings. This happened in Vietnam in 2015. The H7N9 virus, we learned, had jumped the species barrier.
Someone at a Vietnamese meat market may have bought pork infected with the human-seeking H7N9 virus — and suddenly humans were looking at yet another disease for which they had no treatment.

The 2019nCoV virus — not a flu virus — is believed to have jumped from an animal to a human through infected meat bought in a market in Hubei province.
Which brings me to your kebab. As people get richer they want more of their proteins from meat. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimates that human beings' appetite for animal protein in developing countries will double by 2030. Humans will need twice the quantity of chicken, fish, mutton, beef and pork they consume today.

At present, a quarter of the world's land is used for meat production. Double the demand will not mean double the land but twice the animals crowded into the same area. The number of ruminant cattle worldwide will double, crossing 3 billion. They will all shit, releasing twice the methane. Their contribution to greenhouse gases will rise from 18 per cent to 36 per cent.

Here's the bad news: the closer you pack animals together, the easier it is for viruses from one to get into another. This not only gives them more opportunities to mutate but also increases the odds of new diseases emerging. A low pathogenic flu virus in a mallard — that is, one not harmful to humans — now has all it needs to evolve into a highly pathogenic one, deadly to humans.

I can give it to you in a sentence. Unless you find a way to eat less meat and eat it less often, your children will be living in a world battered by diseases medicine has not seen before. Your kebabs and burgers are already lethal.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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