Marie-Monique Robin: “The best antidote to the next pandemic is to preserve biodiversity”

In her latest book The Pandemic Factory, the journalist from Les Deux-Sèvres spoke with 62 scientists from around the world. Their observation is clear: the current pandemic is only the tip of the iceberg. Others will follow. And we’re responsible. 

Marie-Monique Robin – © Julien Delage, France TV, 2021/02/03

Translated by Dennis Riches

Marie-Monique Robin is a journalist and director, winner of the Albert-London Prize (1995). A native of Gourgé in the Les Deux Sèvres region of France, she is notable for having written The World According to Monsanto and Round-Up in Front of its Judges. The Pandemic Factory is her latest work. She gave the following interview to France 3 TV.

France 3 An epidemic of pandemics threatens our planet. That is what emerges from your work. Do the scientists you interviewed officially support this view?

Marie-Monique Robin. The 62 scientists from five continents whom I interviewed come from a wide variety of disciplines. They are infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, doctors, parasitologists or veterinarians. But they all share a conviction that the best antidote to the next pandemic is the preservation of biodiversity. They all agree. In fact, they have uncovered mechanisms that show how the destruction of biodiversity—deforestation or the destruction of primary rainforests in Africa, South America or Asia—is the cause of zoonoses. Zoonoses are diseases caused by pathogens transmitted by wildlife to humans and very often through domestic animals.

France 3. And this point about the responsibility of humans is very clearly established?

Marie-Monique Robin. Absolutely, and this was surprising to me. It’s not just a matter of saying “it’s sad, birds and pandas are disappearing”. For example, there are mechanisms that truly show how in a balanced rainforest that has not been fragmented, all the pathogens hosted by the animals that live there operate at a low, background level. And when you break that balance by making the big mammals disappear, the predators disappear with them. These predators feed on rodents, which are the first reservoir of pathogens, even before primates and bats. If you preserve the integrity of the forests, everything stays low-key. If you upset the balance, it’s a real biological bomb. The best example of this “dilution effect” is Lyme disease.

France 3. How doesthis “dilution effect” work?

Marie-Monique Robin. In the United States, researchers have shown that the reservoir of the bacterium that transmits Lyme disease [via ticks] is a white-legged mouse. And if you want to prevent a tick from drinking the blood of a white-legged mouse, you have to make sure that there are plenty of mammals in the forest, such as opossums that do not carry this bacterium. But if we reduce biodiversity by making the opossums and squirrels disappear [who have fled because they don’t have enough space], there’s only going to be one type of rodent left. The “specialists” [who only eat certain types of food] will disappear, but not the “generalists” [who feed on anything]. However, it is the generalist rodents that are a reservoir of pathogens such as the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. You can see the importance of this balance that needs to be maintained.

France 3. Is this also what happened in Malaysia with the Nipah virus?

Marie-Monique Robin. That’s another good example. In 1997, the Borneo forest was burned to put oil palm crops in place, and the bats that lived in this rainforest were forced to flee. You should know that they are extraordinary animals. They are the only mammals capable of flying, and as such, they have developed an immune system, a real prowess, that allows them to be stuffed with pathogens without ever getting sick. Except that when their habitat is destroyed, they start excreting all the pathogens they carry because of the stress they are under [scientists have also measured these stress hormones in animals that have fled]. So in 1997, bats forced to flee took refuge on fruit trees planted on the coast of Malaysia. They ate the mangoes, defecated on the intensive pig farming operations below, and infected them with this new virus [which was called “Nipah,” named after this location in Malaysia] which then infected humans. Pigs are the best intermediate hosts for transmitting wildlife pathogens to humans. We share 95% of our genes with pigs. In terms of the exchange of pathogens, they are man’s best friend. You can see how it all unfolds. It involves deforestation, industrialization, and finally globalization because these pigs were destined for the Chinese market. All the ingredients came together. This process is found in many zoonotic diseases. 

France 3. Like Ebola?

Marie-Monique Robin. Yes, I think so. It was the first major zoonotic disease, appearing in Africa in 1976, transmitted by primates driven from their habitat due to deforestation. There was trafficking of primates to eat their meat, and the whole process unfolded. The same goes for AIDS. 

France 3. Reading your book, one realizes that in the end, the species barrier no longer exists.

Marie-Monique Robin. That’s what Jean-François Guégan, a researcher at INRAE (National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment) and the IRD (Institute for Research for Development), says. He says that what we were taught when we were students, that there is a species barrier that protects us and that pathogens cannot pass through it, is all wrong. It’s completely false. What we also understand is that humanity is in a totally unique situation where our anthropogenic activity, human activity, has changed the environment considerably. At this the point, if we continue to deforest like this, to speak of tropical forests, there will soon be no more, and the process goes very fast. By changing the landscapes, we completely rewrite the maps, force animal populations to move or disappear, and disrupt the climate. Researchers tell us that the causes of new diseases are the same ones that cause climate change. This means that when you are a politician, if you want to avoid the next pandemic, there are steps to be taken at the international level. For example, we need to stop importing genetically modified soybeans to feed European farms. When you import soybeans from Argentina or Brazil, originally there is deforestation that will sicken not only the people who live there but us as well. We also need to stop importing palm oil. Everything is connected. Everything is interconnected. And if you take these measures to preserve biodiversity, it’s also good for the climate. It’s good for personal health, and it’s good for biodiversity.

France 3. One of the great demonstrations of your book is that the researchers had identified the risks a long time ago. You write, “We knew.”

Marie-Monique Robin. These scientists have all been sounding the alarm for at least 20 years by demonstrating how biodiversity protects health. And they’re not being heard. We are always in a very fragmented vision of science and the political action that goes with it. We operate in silos. When you’re a doctor, you don’t take care of animals, and when you’re a veterinarian, you don’t take care of humans. It’s ridiculous. Two centuries ago, these two disciplines were taught at the same time because there is nothing closer to us than animals. Take pigs and primates, for example. 99% of the genes of chimpanzees are the same as ours. We are in a very fragmented vision that means that we no longer have a global vision in the Anthropocene era. We are in a new geological era. We are no longer in the Holocene. We are deregulating the climate, we are in the sixth mass extinction of species, which is serious. The last mass extinction period was the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We are in the sixth mass extinction of species, and it is we humans who have caused it through our activities. It’s a very special, unique time. We have to review all our programmed thinking, develop new concepts. There is a “one health” concept that is being talked about more and more. What this concept of “global health” means is that we must have a global vision. We cannot separate the health of animals, domestic or wild, from that of humans. It is impossible. When ecosystems are sick, everyone is sick. Scientists say there are indications that when the ecosystem is in poor health, diarrhea and chronic diseases are widespread in certain populations. It also means that we have to get out of this very technological mindset. Today in the face of the pandemic, our only obsession is to find a vaccine and a drug.

France 3. If the risk of pandemics will accelerate, does this mean that the vaccine race we are currently witnessing is completely futile?

Marie-Monique Robin. At least that’s what the scientists say. It’s futile in the sense that we’re doing only this. It is not a question of saying that we should not be looking for a vaccine against this epidemic at this time, although they have a lot of doubts about its effectiveness because it is a virus that mutates enormously, more than the flu. Scientists have doubts about the ability to make a vaccine so quickly, as Jean-François Guégan reminds us. But the problem is that this is all we do. We are not doing what scientists are advocating, which is to address the causes of pathogen outbreaks afflicting us. The pathogens have always been there in bats since the dawn of time without ever becoming a risk to humans. That’s what we really have to face collectively. It’s very important. There are signs of a beginning of an awareness of this issue. The World Congress of Nature was set to be held in Marseille next year, but it has been postponed because of the pandemic. France will table a motion on imported deforestation. When we put palm oil in our engines, we participate in deforestation in Indonesia or elsewhere. Every act of consumption in Europe has an impact on the environment on the other side of the world. As one scientist says in my book, when you cut down trees in Guyana, you can cause a disease on the other side of the world, and that is especially true now that there are long-haul aircraft flights.

France 3. Is that why the risk of a virus emerging is higher in Asia or Africa?

Marie-Monique Robin. Absolutely. Scientists have found that pathogens are not distributed equally over the planet. The closer you go to the tropics, the greater the biodiversity, the more mammals and wild birds there are, and therefore the more potential pathogens there are. What the studies show is that the more you destroy the environment, the greater the risk of the dilution effect. I remind you, it is in the tropical forests that there are the most reservoirs of potential pathogens. Again, these pathogens have always existed, and until recently, they were not a problem. They are now being driven out of the forests. The solution, of course, is not to kill all the bats or rodents in the world. They all have a role for ecology. The solution is to review our connection with the environment, with wild animals and our place on this planet. Scientists have told me that we must stop considering that we are at the top of the pyramid because with this very arrogant attitude, we are destroying the living creatures we depend on for life, and we are going to destroy ourselves.

France 3. Is that the purpose of your book, to awaken this consciousness? Is there still time?

Marie-Monique Robin. It is like the climate. It is urgent, but itis still possible to do something. Deforestation must be stopped for good, and tropical forests must no longer be touched, but it also means encouraging these countries to find alternative crops or ways to reduce poverty. It should be noted that the pressure on ecosystems, especially on tropical forests, also comes from the population surge, which is largely linked to poverty. I am very surprised to see scientists talking to me about this. They tell me that in order to stop the next pandemics, we obviously have to stop destroying biodiversity, but we also have to solve poverty because the two issues are linked. In Asia, people are increasingly entering tropical forests either because the large multi-nationals want to exploit palm oil or something else, but it is also the work of small farmers who simply do not have land to feed themselves. A new ethic is needed to take better care of the environment but also of humans. It’s a profound change, including also the economy.

France 3. How can we do that?

Marie-Monique Robin. After years of making films and books, I’ve come to this conclusion. We have an economic model that is based on unlimited profits that benefits only a small minority. 28 billionaires in the world have as much wealth as 3.5 billion other people, so we can see that there is a huge problem! It is no longer possible to continue with this unlimited production system without ever taking into account the damage done to the environment. It is a system in which a majority of people suffer with no benefit from these economic activities. We have to understand that! All the scientists I interviewed to write my book were confined to their homes in Australia, the United States or Gabon and all were very depressed, very worried about their children, their grandchildren. All of them told me that we were going straight into a wall and that we had to wake up. Over the past thirty years, the rate of pandemics has been accelerating. Until the mid-1970s, there was a new emerging disease every 15 years. Today it’s one to five years, so it’s accelerating. So far, the economy has been crippled because of a virus that kills 1% of the population. Obviously, that’s too much, but we have to put it in context. It kills less than malaria, or Ebola which kills 50 to 60% of infected people. Imagine if a virus comes along as lethal as Ebola and transmitted by air. What will result? It is clear that we are at a crossroads and that we need to have a medium and long-term vision, not a short-term vision as we have now.

*****

Filming for a documentary with Juliette Binoche is expected to begin very soon. A call for subscription has been launched. Based on the book The Pandemic Factory, it will give voice to twenty scientists from around the world.

Trailer for The Pandemic Factory (In French, 04:22)