This is a guest post by Professor Emma Despland
Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that jump from animals to people, are not a new phenomenon. Many well-known human diseases first originated in animal populations. In some cases, animals are the main sources of human infection and human-to-human transmission is rare or null (e.g. rabies); other diseases persist in animal populations and occasionally jump to humans, seeding a human outbreak (e.g. plague), and yet others jumped from animals to people long ago and have been circulating in human populations ever since (e.g. measles). However, novel zoonotics have been appearing with disturbingly increasing frequency.
As it quickly became clear in late February and early March that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon, attention turned to trying to figure out when and where the virus would spread. Epidemiologists and virologists have had their work cut out for them, trying to simultaneously reassure and warn people the world over about the dangers, the nature and the potential timeline of the virus.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise to see ecologists try and tip their hat into the ring. Early on in the pandemic, teams of ecologists sprang up, trying to use Species Distribution Models to predict the spread of the virus. And whilst this might sound helpful, many of these studies lacked collaboration with epidemiologists, and their predictions very quickly fell flat. Some studies suggested that areas like Brazil and Central Africa would be largely spared by the virus, which quickly turned out not to be the case. Flaws in the studies were spotted quite quickly by concerned members of both the ecological and epidemiological communities alike, and a few teams got started on responses.
Image Credit: Hippopx, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, things have changed for people the world over. Many governments enforced lockdowns on their citizens, certain products are harder to get than before (looking at you toilet paper hoarders), and there has been an enormous and terrible loss of life. A wet market in China is suspected to be the source of the outbreak, but one thing to consider as we move forward is that the risk of another outbreak from other animal markets remains high.
When dealing with complicated ecological concepts, theoretical models – though they may seem abstract – often help create bridges to fill in our understanding, writes Thomas Haaland (Image Credit: Aga Khan, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)
It should not come as a surprise any more that most ecologists don’t spend all that much (work) time outside. Numerous posts on this blog about data management and ecological modelling draw a picture of a modern biologist spending most of their time in front of a computer rather than out in the field. However, the work is still intimately related to the natural world. Gathering the data is simply the first step on the way to scientific understanding, and between organizing data, analyzing data, interpreting results and writing them up, the computer hours just vastly outweigh the outdoor hours. But there is another, more mysterious breed of researchers that has even less to do with nature: theoretical biologists.