Since the coronavirus outbreak began, there’s been special attention paid to lessons learned. One case in recent history that’s worth looking at again is Malaysia’s outbreak of the Nipah virus, which was first recognized in 1999.
The Nipah virus killed more than 100 people and led to nearly a million pigs being culled. But ultimately, the Nipah virus outbreak was a success story for Malaysia. The country eradicated the Nipah virus, and today, it seems to be effectively staving off the coronavirus, as well.
As of Tuesday, Malaysia had reported 6,742 cases of the coronavirus and 109 deaths, putting it just behind South Korea. Some scientists and researchers say its success in handling COVID-19 is directly related to its history of fighting zoonotic diseases like the Nipah virus.
In the late ’90s, the Nipah virus outbreak all started with pig farmers deciding to grow fruit on their property. Pigs were dying, people were getting sick, and everyone knew the two were somehow connected.
“Initially, this is something where no one knew what it was.”Tom Hughes, EcoHealth Alliance
“Initially, this is something where no one knew what it was,” said Tom Hughes, a scientist with EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia.
He says at first, the Malaysian government thought there was just a bad case of Japanese encephalitis — a disease spread by mosquitoes — going around.
“The Malaysian government quickly realized that wasn’t the case. They were dealing with something they hadn’t seen before. And, it turned out, it was Nipah virus.”
The virus got its name from Sungai Nipah, a small village surrounded by jungle. Farmers raising pigs there planted fruit trees to make a second income. And Hughes says the fruit attracted flying foxes from the jungle, also known as bats.
“They fed on these fruit trees. They dropped chewed fruit. They urinated. They defecated into the pig pens. And this virus that had been carried by flying foxes for tens of thousands of years was able to move from the flying foxes into the pigs.”
At first, the virus from the bats wasn’t a threat to pigs. But random mutations and constant exposure to this new species of animal allowed it to adapt, and jump from bats to pigs.
“The pigs amplified this virus. They made it stronger so that it could then infect humans.”
When the Malaysian government learned about this new virus infecting pigs, they shut down pig farms and killed almost a million pigs in a single day.
“And that ended up decimating the Malaysian pork industry. It cost the economy $550 million. If we could go back five years before that outbreak and educate those farmers about the risk of planting those fruit trees — which seemed innocent then — we could’ve prevented this from happening.”Tom Hughes, EcoHealth Alliance
“And that ended up decimating the Malaysian pork industry. It cost the economy $550 million. If we could go back five years before that outbreak and educate those farmers about the risk of planting those fruit trees — which seemed innocent then — we could’ve prevented this from happening.”
More than 100 people got sick and died from the virus. Most of them were pig farm workers. In a documentary from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Yee Ah Moi holds up a picture of her deceased husband.
“I was also really worried,” she says in the film. “We were told it was mosquitoes. My husband said, ‘Mosquitoes? What’s there to be afraid of?’”
Malaysia eradicated the Nipah virus. But it later reemerged in Bangladesh, as recently as this year. And the fatality rate there is 50% or more. Nipah virus, HIV, malaria, Ebola and the virus that causes COVID-19 are all zoonotic in origin.
“Zoonosis, or zoonotic diseases, are diseases that can spread between human and nonhuman animals,” said Steve Unwin, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
He says about 75% of new and emerging diseases come from animals. He also says that this number should not surprise us.
“Approximately 75% to 80% of the terrestrial landmass has been altered in some way by human activity. So, this activity has brought humans in closer contact with nonhuman animals. If we consider that humans are just another animal, it kind of makes perfect sense that diseases can go backward and forward.”
Unwin says zoonosis is a two-way street. When people expose animals in the wild to human diseases, that gives viruses a new host species to thrive in. These viruses can become much stronger.
“If you see a great ape with a runny nose, it’s quite likely they’re carrying a rhinovirus from a human source. If we continue to treat other creatures on the planet as something lesser than ourselves, then we do so at our peril because we are part of that same ecosystem and environment.”Steve Unwin, University of Birmingham
“If you see a great ape with a runny nose, it’s quite likely they’re carrying a rhinovirus from a human source. If we continue to treat other creatures on the planet as something lesser than ourselves, then we do so at our peril because we are part of that same ecosystem and environment.”
Unwin and Tom Hughes are part of a movement called, “One Health.” It brings together veterinary scientists, epidemiologists, public health officials, economists and ecologists with the goal of coordinating their efforts to quash zoonotic disease outbreaks early on.
Hughes says Malaysia adopted the One Health concept early on and used it to control the Nipah virus. Several government agencies collaborated “to break the transmission chain to understand where the virus came from.”
In his view, “The One Health concept is pretty simple. It’s something my children are able to grasp, but adults seem to struggle with. The idea is if we want to have healthy people, we need to have a healthy environment, healthy livestock and healthy wildlife. We are all interconnected.”
As for COVID-19, Malaysia only has about 200 cases per 1 million people. That’s just behind South Korea. Hughes says the country’s relative success is directly related to its history of fighting zoonotic diseases.
“Just looking at how Malaysia is responding to COVID-19 and how well we are doing to maintain the spread of this virus. They’re doing an amazing job to keep the public informed, and it really shows just how well Malaysia has embraced these kinds of ideas. Malaysia is really showing itself as a regional leader in dealing with zoonosis.”Tom Hughes, EcoHealth Alliance
“Just looking at how Malaysia is responding to COVID-19 and how well we are doing to maintain the spread of this virus. They’re doing an amazing job to keep the public informed, and it really shows just how well Malaysia has embraced these kinds of ideas. Malaysia is really showing itself as a regional leader in dealing with zoonosis.”
The Malaysian government has a text-messaging system set up for relaying real-time updates about the country’s movement control order and have ramped up their testing capacity to test 11,500 samples a day across 48 different testing centers.
Hughes points out that Southeast Asia is home to a lot of research on zoonotic disease transmission because countries in tropical climates are more prone to zoonotic disease emergence.
“You’ve got high population densities. Lots of natural, pristine environments with high wildlife biodiversity. But, at the same time, you have a huge amount of pressure to expand our urban environment and expand our agricultural areas, which is what is causing these viruses to spill over. In the US and the UK and Europe, most of our development happened decades and centuries ago, whereas this sort of development is happening right now in the tropics.
He says it is the responsibility of wealthier nations to fund zoonotic disease research in these countries because, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, we are all one.