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Saúde / 07/01/2021

Antibiotics, bats and the next pandemic

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Antibiotics, bats and the next pandemic


We cook the diseases of tomorrow in our pots. Predatory relationship with nature, abuse of “additives” on industrial farms and ambition of agribusiness make the Earth a bizarre and increasingly dangerous place


“We know that another pandemic will be inevitable. Is coming. And we also know that when that happens, we won't have enough drugs, vaccines, healthcare professionals or hospital capacity, ”said Lee Jong-wook, then director of the World Health Organization, in 2004. The speech was delivered when the planet was trying to recover the scare that emerged bird flu, which broke out in Hong Kong in 2003.

The doctor warned of a very difficult fact to hear: that a worse outbreak could happen at any time. In 2009, for example, when another virus jumped a pig to become Influenza A that, Mexico, reached the entire world; or in 2012, when the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) emerged Saudi Arabian camels, infecting people in 27 countries.

"We should not fear the missiles, but the viruses," said Bill Gates in a lecture on Ted Talk in 2015, after Ebola broke the body boundaries of a species of bat in 2014 to become a nightmare for humans. humans.

“It's an emergency”, “We need to prepare”, “We need to control viruses”: the official documents of several United Nations agencies, global organizations like the Gates Foundation and several governments are full of similar warnings. But nothing was done to stop the covid-19. Perhaps because in none of these spaces of power was there any intention to name clearly and bluntly the main triggering factor of these diseases: the abusive and predatory relationship that we establish with nature, in general, and with other animals, in particular.

Cows, pigs, chickens, bats, no matter which animal we are talking about. If we do not extinguish them with the destruction of their habitats, we cage, accumulate, mutilate, transport, fatten, medicate and deform to increase their productivity. We push the limits of their bodies and cancel their instincts as if they were things, through techniques taught at universities, repeated at business conferences and tested in laboratories. A billion dollar business.

I have never ridden a camel or visited Asian markets, monkeys, birds and armadillos are sold alive in small boxes, but I have visited a good number of industrial farms in Latin America - those places the food we find less exotic and cruel, more civilized and safer. And on these farms I learned that, on issues such as ethics, empathy and public health, the difference between what is offered in Wuhan and what fills the shelves in our supermarkets is imaginary.

Pests are not new, but they are advancing: two hundred new zoonotic infectious diseases have emerged in the past thirty years, and none are the result of our bad luck.


I visited Rosalía de Barón in 2011 while doing research for my book Malcomidos. She, an egg producer in the province of Entre Ríos, in Argentina, knew perfectly well: her chicken coop was a gold mine, but she had a weakness: she could trigger a plague at any time.

“Since I am like this, I live among the eggs,” he said, lowering his hand to the ground, when we entered the shed that contained about forty thousand chickens in full production. Rosalía was a strong woman, almost 40 years old, with light blue eyes, worn blond hair and the pride of running a prosperous business: eighty boxes of daily eggs of the best quality. About ten times more than his own farm produced as a girl, in the same space. The trick? Automated concentration. The modern chicken coop has no land, no bushes, no sun, but cages of about forty centimeters, the chickens live for four years, stacked in groups of ten. The cages are on top of each other and close to each other, making the place a maze completely covered with feathers, beaks and paws that, at first glance, it is impossible to know which chicken they belong to.

Try to imagine: ten chickens crushed in a space not even one of them would be comfortable; there is no way to flap your wings, lie down, turn around or satisfy any of your biological requirements other than eating, defecating and giving an egg a day.

When the hens are huddled together, they can only climb together, curl up and stick their heads through the bars until their necks are full of wounds, raw. The situation is so stressful that, within weeks, they become cannibals. To prevent them eating each other, a few days after being born, the chickens have the tip of their beak amputated. Thus, the beaks grow flat, as if they had hit a wall with force.

That they do not kill themselves, keeping the production to the maximum: that is the objective. To achieve this, products res use this type of intervention: mutilation, light control, constant sounds, several days of hunger and thirst - in this case, so that only the strongest survive. It's fifteen or twenty days without food or water. The chickens die like a toy whose battery runs out: consumed, lying on top of each other, with dry eyes, open beaks, emitting an almost inaudible sigh. For those who survive, the ration is renewed and, the next day, magical: a new egg, the infernal cackling; and also fear, rotting flesh, the smell of death in life.

Visiting industrial farms for the first time has something monstrous: neither the eyes, nor the lungs, nor the mind are prepared to apprehend what happens there. What you see, what you hear animal handlers - as normal as a neighbor, an uncle, a dentist. The information arrives in stages: the systematization of cruelty, the denial of pain (which is evident). The only justification for everything is the laws of the world of money, so absurd, so perverse.

Theodor W. Adorno said it was necessary to look at slaughterhouses and say "they are just animals" to understand Auschwitz's origin. Faced with these farms, so naturalized, I try to understand how we got here.

Rosalía explained what she knew and said something she found fascinating: “I only work two hours a day, the rest is done on my own”, and pressed a button that made the chicken coop start to move. Below the cages, the conveyors carried the eggs to the place they would be measured and packaged. Other conveyors carried the feces, which will be buried in a pit a few meters the shed. In the same choreography as the machine, drinkers are replenished and feeders are filled with corn, vitamins and dye for the orange yolks that the market is asking for today. The factory's accuracy seemed to show that everything was under control. The cold, hard materials covered the whole process with asepsis, despite the shit, the fluids, the pustular eyes and the flying feathers.

“However,” continues Rosalía, “nothing is so easy”. The farm had a danger lurking. "Which one?" I asked. “Diseases. The chickens look strong, but one can get sick, and that would be the end. ”

I thought of the days when chickens go without water or food: if they resist it, they are not weak, I told myself. But I immediately learned that I didn't. Chickens do not survive the flu. Flu is the Achilles' heel.

Keeping diseases under control in a chicken coop is difficult. It requires conditions that dematerialize this resounding reality: tens of thousands of animals huddled together, breathing very close, itching, stress, suffering. Requires permanent cleaning. Requires medication: antibiotics and antivirals. And it requires keeping the rest of nature at a distance: wild birds that carry viruses that can make this concentration of exhausted animals uncontrollable sources of contagion.

Before installing the chicken coop, Rosalía had three pheasants and two peacocks running around the property. But when he closed the last cage with the chickens, he turned on the mechanism and did the math, placed his birds in a small room which they would never leave. Then he took care of the egrets and ducks that were once beautiful to see: he bought a rifle and, at nightfall, started shooting into the air in the hope of chasing them away. "If any of them came here, I would lose everything, it would be a disaster," he said.

This happened to your neighbors. An infected chicken coop becomes a massacre. Sanitary slaughter of all animals, which must follow the legislation according to international protocols. In Asia alone, in recent years, two hundred million birds have been sacrificed to prevent the spread of viruses among other animals, and also, above all, to prevent viruses undergoing mutations that can lodge in humans, making us sick, collapsing health systems and killing us.


In 1918, the Spanish flu infected half of humanity and killed between 50 and 100 million people (the numbers vary according to estimates in some countries' records). Although the origin is still the subject of research, the most likely point is the farms that started to proliferate in Kansas, in the United States. In other words, people intensify animal production and bridge the healthy distance between species - each with its own specific microorganisms - to create a new, bizarre and increasingly dangerous world. “All the infectious viruses that plague us can be related, in some way, to industrial farms”, says Rob Wallace, biologist and author of the book Pandemia and agribusiness: infectious diseases, capitalism and science (Elefante & Igra Kniga, 2020).

It is an exponential multiplying threat: the number of animals raised for food grows almost twice as fast as the human population. At the moment, there are about seventy billion animals confined, like the chickens of Rosalía. Birds, cows, pigs sep plowed by the product to be extracted (meat, eggs, milk), in places they share race, age and biological system. And this, for nature, whose most important law is the balance in diversity, means a giant plague. An inevitable attraction to other animals, a banquet for microorganisms. A permanent experiment of extreme mutations and contagions.

There are ten pets per person. Choose yours. Chickens like Rosalía's. Chickens that get fat in sheds with fifty thousand individuals twice as fast as fifty years ago. Calves that grow in tight pens between manure, urine and mud, eating things for which they are not prepared: grains, cellulose and (they say they are no longer) blood other animals. Pregnant cows without rest with udder of forty liters of milk (four times more than thirty years ago), also cornered. Piled hogs, born sows that live their entire lives in cages the size of their imprisoned bodies.

All cases are similar: they will live with red eyes, torn and swollen with fatigue, breathing addicted air, maintaining a certain rebellion and, if there is no misfortune, they will never be sick enough.

The industry has managed to generate "chemical vests" for industrial farms that contain or disguise the health manifestations expected when animals live in these conditions: heartburn, allergies, heart attacks, infections of all kinds. In a study by researcher Rafael Lajmanovich, in Argentina, on chicken sheds, he found traces of all types of drugs, antivirals to clonazepam. Especially antibiotics.

Antibiotics in chicken farming have two uses: to preserve health and to promote fattening. In the pig, the same thing. Decimating the intestinal microbiome of animals slows down their metabolism, helping them to gain more weight in less time. In herds, the use is different: the demand for these cows increasingly full of milk is so great that the breast infections known as mastitis sometimes seem uncontrollable, and there is no alternative but to remove the animals production and put them in treatment.

Thus, 80% of the antibiotics produced in the world end up on industrial farms, fueling another pandemic that we must begin to understand before it begins to regulate our lives and, again, overthrows us. Because, in addition to the misuse made in human health, antibiotics - which marked a before and an after in our life expectancy - are losing their effectiveness. Today, bacterial resistance causes seven hundred thousand deaths a year and, if this continues, the number is expected to rise to ten million by 2050.

Antibiotics, administered in daily microdoses or in increasingly recurrent treatments, feed the bacteria sheltered by these animals, remain in their meat (which is then sold to the public), in the land that receives their feces and in the water, everything flows .

Antibiotics serve their commercial purpose - animals survive and gain weight - but they also cause bacteria to mutate so they don't die. Like viruses, they leave the farms strengthened in search of new hosts, colonize them and make them die of diseases which we would not have died if the bacteria had not been fed with the cure that, for this reason, no longer serves us. Tuberculosis, urinary tract infection: the death certificate can be filled out with any of these things, although it is more accurate to say: collateral damage caused by a demented system.


Anthropocene. This is what the time in which we live is called. During this period, we did what only asteroids were capable of: we print our footprint on the geological layers of the planet. Increased radiation, tons of plastic and chicken bones. If an explorer of the future wanted to know what we were, he would discover that, without religious restrictions and at low prices, we ate chickens in such quantity that we made them a more important fossil record than that of the majestic whales and lions (probably extinct by then).

Why, yes: this is also the age of the sixth extinction. And global warming. And preventable pandemics.

With the food system at the forefront, we set out to change the world for the worse, the visible to the invisible. We became the species at risk of extinguishing everything, in a process that does not know quarantines.

“The clearings don't stop. While most of us citizens stay at home, the ambition of some rural entrepreneurs is uncontrollable. Excavators are advancing with impunity, destroying our last native forests ”, warned Hernán Giardini, who coordinates the Greenpeace forestry campaign, with permanent monitoring of deforestation in Argentina. In the last ten days of March, more than two thousand hectares of forest were destroyed - and, with them, trees, shrubs and wild animals that took thousands of years to create this ecosystem.

The question is also It is also global: per minute, per day, 365 days a year, forty football fields of nature disappear. What takes its place? Cows and soybean and corn monocultures to feed other cows in pens, pigs, chickens, chickens. One third of the land is cultivated as food for farm animals. Two or three vegetable productions for four or five types of animals.

Biodiversity is the only pest control that exists. A buffer barrier. A network that we destroyed, leaving us exposed to the elements, amid the hum of mosquitoes with malaria, dengue, yellow fever, zika. barbers with Chagas. rodents with hantavirus. Deer with Lyme. In Amazonas, the number of bat bites has increased nine times in deforestation areas in recent years.

And so, we get to bats and armadillos.

Wild animals, homeless, skittish, dangerously approach each other. And eventually, they approach the animals huddled on industrial farms. Or they become specimens sold in live animal markets, viruses are expressed and mutated - and bacteria too. And then, in cities around the world, hotels, theaters, schools become hospitals. And everyday life stops. And it seems that the world has changed. But not. Supermarkets are open, and we make eternal queues to buy things (nuggets, eggs, yogurt) with which we continue to cook pandemics that later will seem inevitable.

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