COVID-19 Q & A with Animal-Borne Disease Detective Daniel Streicker

TEDMED Speaker Daniel Streicker provided some great insights about bats and pandemics in his 2018 TalkWhat vaccinating vampire bats can teach us about pandemics” and TEDMED blog post. Learn about this Animal-Borne Disease Detective’s perspective on COVID-19 in our Q & A below.

TEDMED: What do we know about the origin of COVID-19? Which theories stand strong in your mind?

Daniel Streicker: We know that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) most likely originated from a non-human animal, but exactly which animal and how it managed to make the jump to people largely remains a mystery. The virus genome is most closely related to viruses that are known to circulate in Old World bats in the family Rhinolophidae (horseshoe bats). That points to bats in this same group as the origin, but the viruses we know about aren’t a perfect genetic match to SARS-CoV-2. In fact, there are few decades worth of transmission separating the previously known viruses from the virus that is now circulating in humans. That gap could be filled by another bat virus that we don’t know about (there are likely many undiscovered coronaviruses in bats). Alternately, a historical bat virus might have jumped into and evolved in some ‘intermediate’ host prior to infecting humans. We don’t know exactly what triggered the shift to humans, but finding the animal source would provide viral clues. Researchers are now trying to use knowledge of the biology of the virus to work out candidate animals to survey.

TM: What should we be weary of to prevent another bat initiated outbreak?

DS: Like all animals, bats host diverse viruses, some of which are able to infect humans. Consequently the main thing we can do is limit the opportunities that viruses have to spread between species. In some cases, there are practical solutions like limiting the trafficking and consumption of wildlife or improving handling and animal housing standards. However, when there are indirect routes of infection between animals and people such as through the shared environment, through arthropod vectors (ticks, mosquitoes) or through domestic animals, prevention will be challenging without larger scale changes in human societies, such as changing farming practices, land use, and resource extraction practices. COVID-19 is not the first and it is not likely to be the last disease outbreak that originates from bats.

TM: Are there ways to take precautions against animal to human transmission for new diseases? Or is it inevitable?

DS: Unfortunately, some amount of animal to human transmission is inevitable. The positive side is that with each epidemic we gain new knowledge and technologies that let us respond faster. It also puts one more high-risk virus on our radar which might be prevented from re-emerging in the future. We can also do more now than ever before to prepare. The more we understand the routes through which animal viruses emerge, the more we can develop broad-acting precautionary measures to reduce the risk. For example, limiting human-wildlife interaction in high risk situations. However, we also have new tools that are allowing viruses to be discovered at unprecedented rates. More comprehensive knowledge of viral diversity can accelerate investigations into the origins of novel viruses that appear in humans. This cataloging of viruses is also a first step towards evaluating risk prior to emergence in humans, though we still need better ways to narrow the list of viruses that are worth preemptively investigating.

TM: Was there anyway for the world to anticipate this virus? What additional complications arise given that this is a novel virus?

DS: We couldn’t have predicted this exact virus, but given that the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 was caused by a very similar virus (taxonomically the same species as the virus that causes COVID-19), it is really not a surprise. In the wake of SARS, a great deal of surveillance was undertaken to discover and characterize coronaviruses in wild animals, and numerous scientists provided persuasive evidence that these kinds of viruses were circulating in bats and posed a threat to human health. Why more effort was not put into developing vaccines and antivirals for humans is perplexing.

TM: Once we understand the source of COVID-19, and eventually develop a vaccine, should efforts be put into tracking and vaccinating the source animal – as you suggested for rabies in vampire bats?

DS: If this is a virus that is transmitted in nature by a wide variety of bat species, vaccination would be challenging. If emergence in humans turns out to be the consequence of a rare evolutionary change in an intermediate host, vaccinating that host could be practical. On the other hand, it could be that transmission in the intermediate host was short lived and it has now gone extinct from animals. In that case re-emergence would be relatively unlikely even without human intervention. The bottom line is that we need to know the steps that the virus took between bat and human to know where the most effective interventions should be targeted.

Music as Medicine: Q&A with Gypsy Sound Revolution

Gypsy Sound Revolution, led by drummer Cédric Leonardi and fellow Gipsy Kings alumni, mixes rumba with Indian raga. They play a unique fusion of Indo-Gypsy music that is both meditative and joyful. We followed up with them to learn more about their project.

"Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love." Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.
“Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.” Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

 What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

As a performer, you want to reach as many people as possible with your art form. Music is increasingly accessible digitally and also thrives using many methods of delivery.
Somewhere along the way, it became a business. A big business. Performing at TEDMED was our way of delivering a message and access to the healing power of music. Music came out of the caves of India as medicine. Invoking the divine, but with a modern vernacular, we have seen lives transformed through the joy of our music. TEDMED was a potent forum to express this and continue the medicinal conversation globally, reaching as many people as possible.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

We hope our legacy shows the way for our children to live authentic lives, fully expressed and joyful using the path we have forged with our music. To touch the hearts of people and share the joy of living together on this planet. Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.

We cherish the poem, “What will matter,” by Michael Josephson, as a reminder of the fragility of life and the speed with which it passes:

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom, and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.

What’s next for you?

Taking our music and message around the world in 2015. We are also finally going into the studio. We are very much a live band– we believe live interaction with people is the true purpose of music. However as TEDMED live-streaming proves, there are many more people that live streaming can reach in all kinds of obscure pockets of the world. The internet has brought us all closer so its time we stopped resisting and we have started to the process with the conundrum: how do you bottle magic? We will have at least three tracks recorded soon.

Any action items for viewers interested to get involved in the kind of work you do? How do they join the revolution?

We are starting a philanthropic initiative to support the communities of our Rajasthani musicians with a US based Indian company, HP Investments. The project will include music camps for children to keep the music traditions of this original gypsy tribe alive, as well as taking care of the necessities like water and power in their villages. Its a humbling and glorious experience working with musicians who go home to their villages without water and power after they have travelled the world with us. We are one– we have a responsibility to help each other beyond.