La fabrique des pandémies:

an Eye-opening Account on the Future of our World

By Michele Affinito | Magazine | April 24, 2022

Cover Illustration: An open book. Divyashree / Muruganandam

Magazine reporter Michele Affinito reviews the book “La fabrique des pandémies” by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin, discussing the correlation between ecological disruption, loss of biodiversity, and viruses. 

In a world trapped and shocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, La fabrique des pandémies (2021) manages to unveil the crucial connection between pandemics, loss of biodiversity and ecological disruption.

In 1998, in peninsular Malaysia, a deadly virus spread in open-air pig farms, decimating animals, infecting the farmers, and causing an outbreak of what was later called the Nipah virus. According to the World Health Organization, despite no major outbreaks since 1998, the virus still represents a health concern in many countries of Southeast Asia. Much like the coronavirus, the Nipah virus is a zoonotic virus –  it is transmitted when animals come in contact with humans. The 1998 outbreak was caused by pigs being infected by fruit bats forced to flee from the Borneo rainforest due to deforestation. What this demonstrates is that the cause was human disruption of natural ecosystems, and it is only one of many outbreaks that can be attributed to human actions. 

La fabrique des pandémies, written by French investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin, features interviews and accounts from more than 60 scientists. The book highlights the true pervasiveness and danger of the Anthropocene, the current geological epoch in which human activity significantly impacts the Earth and its ecosystems. In an era in which hygiene and advancements in medicine are regarded as entry tickets into the contemporary world, human actions are responsible for the spread of zoonotic viruses. The eradication of smallpox in the 1970s was met with enthusiasm by scientists all over the world: a deadly virus disappeared thanks to vaccination campaigns and the world could now focus on researching the causes of chronic diseases. It was the beginning of the end: viruses were not a major threat to human life anymore. However, it was an overly-positive celebration. Contrary to popular belief, the last thirty years have been characterized by a high number of virus outbreaks, a prelude to the catastrophe that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The problem, according to the scientists Robin interviewed, is that politicians and members of the establishment were never brave enough (or simply did not care) to recognize the connection between viruses and the environment. The leading experts that contributed their research and their knowledge to the book come from different scientific fields and include: immunologists, disease ecologists, biologists, epidemiologists, doctors, veterinarians, geneticists, and so on. Despite their seemingly disparate fields of research, the fil rouge that connects them and their stories within the book is that viruses cannot be studied without contextualizing them.

The destruction of primary forests, intensive farming, the close contact between farm animals and wild animals are all events that are uncoincidentally linked to viruses appearing in North America, South America and Asia. We are faced with a global issue that is rooted in the loss of biodiversity. The appeal to protect biodiversity could seem paradoxical: why should we protect the same wild animals that carry the virus? The book helps us untangle this dilemma: it is biodiversity itself that protects us from these infectious diseases since a more biodiverse ecosystem avoids the spread of these diseases among species that are more likely to be healthy carriers, such as rodents and bats.

Robin does not ‘side’ with nature or with the animal world. The book goes beyond the bucolic romanticization of the loss of biodiversity, not because it is something we should not care about, but because it is something that does not work when it comes to shaking the conscience of humanity. La fabrique des pandémies makes the threat of future pandemics more real as the interviews with scientists pile up.

However, the last chapters do answer the critical question: what do we need to do? The short answer is that we need to listen to the scientists, the ones that decades ago warned us of the effects of the current system. The long answer is that science is an all-encompassing word that needs a bit of clarification. Listening does not mean blindly supporting scientific progress as the only way out of this handmade mess. The scientists interviewed by Robin are deeply engaged with the natural world, and they urge for a complete 180 in our approach to science. In a chapter dedicated to indigenous ecology, Robin interviews Shahid Naeem, professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University, who fears the current blind faith in technology. We created a world in which it makes sense to destroy trees and then pour money into research for carbon-capture towers, in other words, literal trees made of metal. Nature is our most important ally, and preserving it is a necessity, not an alternative.

La fabrique des pandémies can leave you with a sense of bitterness: it is the Bible of ecological optimism, if – as Serge Morand, famous ecologist and evolutionary biologist, says – the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that while the first says that nothing can be worse, the second thinks it definitely can be. From this perspective, it is better to be an ‘aware optimist’ rather than an ‘unaware pessimist’, because if it can get worse it can also get better, and making sense of the world is a first step towards changing it. 

Michele Affinito is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

+ posts