What makes a disease go viral?

Lee Humber

The Editor Notes:  As the coronavirus crisis takes hold worldwide  socialists everywhere will have to formulate concrete policies and demands to defend the interests of the people in their particular country and  circumstances: demands to stop profiteering, to secure workers rights to sick pay, to requisition private hospital beds and to ensure that our collective interests and lives are not sacrificed on the altar of profit. However, as we do this it is important to understand the causes of this crisis. In this article Lee Humber shows how its roots lie in the methods of the capitalist food industry, in other words in the ‘metabolic rift’ opened up between society and nature by capitalism which has  long diagnosed by Marx and ecosocialists .

This article is republished from Socialist Review (March 2020). https://socialistreview.org.uk/455/what-makes-disease-go-viral

Viral epidemics are not uncommon. This year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst in years, according to the US Centre for Disease Control. In the US alone there have been 19 million illnesses, 180,000 hospitalisations and 10,000 deaths.

More than 200 people in the UK had died from the 2018-19 winter strain of flu virus by February 2019, and there were more than 2,000 critical cases despite the relatively small numbers of people contracting it — meaning the virus had become more virulent. People who had been previously fit and well became critically ill.

Over the winter of 2017-18 more than 160 people died from a flu virus in the UK, with large numbers of people treated in critical care units.

Globally, the 2009-10 strain of flu — H1N1 (2009) — killed 579,000 people in its first year, although this was fewer than predicted. It produced long-term complications in 15 times as many cases as initially projected, having spread globally in less than nine days. Major flu epidemics have been a constant feature across North and South America in the 21st Century. This is the context in which to understand the coronavirus outbreak, which began in China. We live in a world in which there is a real threat of deadly viral pandemics.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). They are zoonotic, meaning they cross from animals to people. SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS from dromedary camels to humans. There are an unknown — and, given viruses mutate, probably an unknowable — number of coronaviruses circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

Common signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection leads to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.

At the time of writing, the new 2019-nCoV coronavirus had led to more than 77,000 infections and 2,663 deaths in China, and more than 80,000 infections globally.

Leading Chinese virology expert Guan Yi said after a visit to Wuhan which is at the centre of the outbreak: “My conservative estimate is that this epidemic could end up at least 10 times the scale of SARS.” The SARS outbreak in 2002-03 killed almost 800 people around the world.

What has caused this deadly virus? There is continued speculation, most related to a market in Wuhan selling wildlife foodstuffs. There is some evidence, as Marxist evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace shows, to suggest the initial outbreak may have been at the wildlife market — but only some. Thirty-three of 585 samples at the Wuhan market were found positive for 2019-nCoV, with 31 at the end of the market where wildlife trading was concentrated. Yet only 41 percent of these positive samples were found in market streets where wildlife was kept. One quarter of those originally infected never visited the Wuhan market. The earliest case was identified before the market was hit.

A cause for this specific strain of virus may be found. But that won’t explain the global and escalating variety of viral diseases, why they are more virulent or why they spread faster and further than ever before. For that, we need to understand how capitalism has created the context in which deadly viruses thrive.

China is a good place to start. Over the past 50 years and, in particular, in the 21st century, industrial food production in China has grown on a scale never before seen.

For example, by 1997, when H5N1 — a new strain of flu — emerged, Guangdong in Southern China was home to 700 million chickens. These were bred, raised, slaughtered and processed in a vertically integrated, industrial environment supported by feed mills and processing plants. Through the 1990s poultry production grew at a remarkable 7 percent per year. The value of processed poultry exports — which include duck and goose — grew from $6 million to $774 million between 1992 and 1996.


This took place cheek-by-jowl with the growth of an enormous and highly transient population in the Pearl River Delta.

The region linked with Hong Kong has become one of the world’s major export-import centres, with extensive transport routes inland from the Pearl River Delta as well as overseas. The magnitude of poultry intensification combined with the pressures on Guangdong wetlands from the burgeoning population created an array of viral infections that circulate year-round in what Wallace describes as a “virulence ratchet”.

Intensive industrial food production provides ample opportunity for viruses to mutate and spread across poultry hosts, while the proximity and size of the local human population provides a cross-over gateway for viruses to infect human populations.

This mass industrial production sits alongside more traditional wet markets and consumption of exotic foods. Expanding agricultural production through deforestation has pushed the search for wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscapes “dredging out a wider variety of unknown and potentially proto-pandemic pathogens”, according to Wallace.

The industrial model of agriculture and livestock rearing explains how we have come to a point when each year brings the threat of a new and potentially deadly global virus.

Karl Marx recognised the many and varied dangers an industrialised agriculture posed to the health and wellbeing of humanity, as recent analysis of many of his little-known notebooks show. In fact, Marx developed a detailed and sophisticated critique of the industrial food system in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, a period historians have called “the Second Agricultural Revolution”.

Not only did Marx study the production, distribution and consumption of food, he was the first to conceive of these as constituting a problem of changing food “regimes” — an idea that has since become central to discussion of the capitalist food system. Marx based his materialist conception of history on the notion that “the first premise of human existence” is to produce the means of subsistence, beginning with food, water, shelter, clothing and extending to all of the other means of life.

“All labour,” he wrote in Capital, “is originally first directed towards the appropriation and production of food.” Ensuring nutritious, safe food is of primary importance.

Marx was outspoken in the mid-19th century about the abuse of animals by new methods of breeding. Sheep and cattle breeds were developed to be rounder and broader, carrying heavier loads of flesh and fat relative to bone, to the point where animals could often barely support their own weight.

The growth rate of animals bred for meat production accelerated, with sheep and cattle subject to butchering after two rather than five years. Calves were weaned earlier in order to increase dairy production. Bullocks were increasingly stall-fed and kept tightly confined. Cattle were fed a concoction of ingredients to speed up growth, including imported oilcakes which produced richer manure. Each bullock was fed some ten pounds of oilcake a day and slaughtered the moment they reached maturity.

Marx wrote: “In these prisons, animals are born and remain there until they are killed off. The question is whether or not this system connected to the breeding system that grows animals in an abnormal way by aborting bones in order to transform them to mere meat and a bulk of fat — whereas earlier animals remained active by staying under free air as much as possible — will ultimately result in serious deterioration of life force.”

Compare this with modern-day industrial poultry production. In 1940, Henry Wallace Jnr developed the first breed of industrially hybridised chicken at Hy-Line International, a spin-off from the agricultural company of his father — former US secretary of agriculture and vice-president Henry Wallace Snr. Within a decade, almost all commercial poultry breeders worldwide produced stock from these hybrids.

Today, almost 75 percent of the world’s poultry production is in the hands of a few companies. By 2006, there were four primary breeders which engineer the first three generations of “broiler” (chickens for meat) lines, down from 11 in 1989. The ten companies producing layer lines (for eggs) declined to just two over the same period.

The EW (Erich Wesjohann) Group alone controls almost 70 percent of total white egg production in the world. Hendrix Genetics controls 80 percent of brown egg production and has a 50 percent stake in Nutreco which breeds turkeys, broilers and pigs. The Grimaud Group is the second-largest company in avian genetics. Cobb-Vantress, the last of the big-four poultry producers, is owned by Tyson Foods, the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken meat.

Production is strictly and mercilessly controlled to eliminate any unplanned diversity in production. In 2009 a Chicago-based animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, released footage of male layer chicks at a Hy-Line hatchery being fed through a meat grinder. The practice of grinding male layer chicks which, by definition can’t lay eggs, is industry standard.

Jane Foulton of Hy-Line responded by explaining: “We have very tight financial responsibilities. Lines not performing at required economic levels will be eliminated”. A consequence of this elimination is that global poultry production is characterised by monocultures. Chickens are disabled by breeding from resistance to new viruses, with a limited pool of genes limiting the variety of immune reactions to viruses as they mutate. The likelihood of poultry-human cross-over is therefore increased.

Animals are raised in large “factory farms” in appalling conditions. Broilers are fattened in barns of tens of thousands of birds. The chickens have been bred to gain weight rapidly — meaning quicker turnover and higher profits — with outsize breasts reflecting the preference for white meat.

They are inactive because so much of the energy they consume is converted to growth and spend most of their lives sitting on the floor as manure accumulates during a growing cycle — usually losing breast feathers and developing sores because of the constant contact with manure.

Barns are cleaned out only after the chickens have been shipped, but the manure may remain for the next group of chickens with only a thin layer of fresh litter such as wood chips placed on top of the old.

Raised mostly in dim light (companies may forbid natural lighting) these chickens have a six-to-eight-week life spent entirely in the barn. They are fed a diet laced with additives such as antibiotics which enhance growth, but many die in the crowded conditions. Most commercial-grade poultry feed is laced with arsenic to keep bird flesh pink through shipment and sale.

These are ideal circumstances in which to encourage what Wallace calls a “veritable zoo” of new viruses, especially flu viruses. Key to the evolution of virulence is a supply of susceptible hosts. As long as there are enough hosts to infect, a virus can evolve. Industrial livestock are therefore ideal populations for supporting virulent pathogens.

Genetic monocultures of animals remove whatever immune firebreaks may otherwise slow transmission. Large population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Crowded conditions depress immune responses. Fast turnover of livestock provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible hosts.

Influenza infections must reach their transmission threshold quickly in any animal, before the chicken, duck or pig is killed because as soon as industrial animals reach the right bulk they are slaughtered. Innovations in production, such as reducing the age at which chickens are processed from 60 to 40 days, have increased the pressure on viruses to reach their transmission threshold faster.

Culling once a virus infection occurs is not the answer. Rapid culling of whole flocks or herds in response to viruses fails to allow for selection of host resistance to the circulating strain, killing off animals with potential immune reactions so that repeated invasion occurs.

Industrial practices inherent in the capitalist mode of production, now globalised and intensified by 50 years of neoliberalism, are actively breeding more and more virulent and deadly pathogens. This pattern of epidemics is not accidental. It is a consequence of the way the food we eat is produced.

What can we do? Are more anti-virus vaccines the answer? This is the dominant paradigm, what Wallace calls ‘a molecular narrative’ that suggests disease and ill-health is about the fight between viruses and immunity, about viral evolution and humanity’s capacity to produce vaccines, about nature versus science.

It’s a narrative that big pharmaceutical corporations such as Bayer — a leading manufacturer of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and, after its billion-dollar take-over of Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company — are happy with.

First, they sell us food that makes us ill, the production of which generates a deadly viral-epidemic threat. Then they sell us the drugs to make us well again. It’s insulting nonsense. Drugs are as effective in addressing the general health-and-wellbeing needs of humanity as catalytic converters are to the pollution of the planet.

We know the answer. We need to end factory farming and industrial agriculture which strips the earth of forests and leaches the soil of natural nutrients, and replace these practices with planned, collectivised, safe and humane mass-livestock and agricultural practices that are sustainable and provide us with the nutrition we need.

We are prevented from doing this not by any lack of knowledge or need, but by the ownership of the means of food production by a tiny minority of obscenely rich capitalists. They and their class have a vested interest in maintaining these unhealthy and potentially deadly food-production systems. For them to give up this ownership would be for them to give up themselves. For the good of humanity, we need to take these systems away from them.

Further reading:
Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu
Lee Humber, Vital Signs: The Deadly Cost of Health Inequality

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