Plant-based health professionals on the coronavirus
Posted on February 2, 2021 by Estella Ramirez
“We can try to play catch-up each time a new pathogen makes itself known or we can prevent them from emerging in the first place. The choice is in our hands.”
Aysha Akhtar, MD, MPH
In 2020, COVID-19 revealed additional reasons to go vegan that many of us weren’t aware of or weren’t talking about yet. For vegan advocates in 2021, it’s essential to understand how plant-based eating can improve our personal health as well as reduce the likelihood of future pandemics. People need to know how important it is to our public health to eat differently. The science is there, and it’s a lot to unpack!
So, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you and compiled the best evidence-based resources from leading plant-based health professionals. Use this post as a reference to learn and share accurate knowledge about the coronavirus and how being vegan is an opportunity to protect public health.
Pandemics linked to our treatment of animals
“When you cram thousands of chronically stressed animals into crowded, filthy, indoor facilities, you create a cocktail for a deadly virus.”
Michael Greger, MD, FACLM
A little background: Why are we seeing new viruses?
In 2017, Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a leader in animal ethics and neurology and author of Our Symphony with Animals, wrote an article entitled, “Why Are We Seeing an Explosion of New Viruses Like Zika?” She cites the emergence of infectious illnesses such as Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, bird flu, and swine flu. In addition to human overpopulation, increased travel, climate change, and habitat loss, Dr. Akhtar lists global trade in wildlife and the production of animals for food as a rapidly gaining and paramount factor to consider.
The history of infectious disease is intricately tied to the way humanity has changed how animals live. This is according to Dr. Michael Greger, a physician, New York Times bestselling author, infectious disease specialist, internationally recognized professional speaker on public health, and founder of nutritionfacts.org.
Dr. Greger explains this history in a one-hour talk recorded in 2008, when he was Public Health Director at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, DC. He cites a number of infectious diseases, such as measles, smallpox, whooping cough, typhoid fever, influenza, leprosy, and even the common cold, that most likely emerged as a result of the domestication of animals.
Confining animals kept them in close contact with each other and with us. Viruses that had previously been mostly benign gained the opportunity to spread rapidly, mutate, and become zoonotic (jumping from animals to humans).
Dr. Greger explains that in recent decades, human pathogens have materialized at rates unheard of in human history. HIV, BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease), SARS, MERS, swine flu, H1N1, and COVID–19 also most likely emerged from humanity’s interactions with animals.
If you’d like to watch the full talk from 2008 below, you’ll even see Dr. Greger seemingly predict COVID-19. His depictions of a looming pandemic forcing us to stay home for months seem stunningly prophetic now.
But there’s hope: How not eating animals reduces the risk of a future pandemic
Dr. Greger reminds us to be “prepared, not scared.” If human behavior can cause new plagues, then changes in human behavior can prevent them.
During a 25-minute interview with Plant Based News, Dr. Greger states that if people stopped eating animals en masse, we would dramatically reduce the risk of future killer pandemic viruses, worse than COVID-19.
In fact, he says that the public health community, including the American Public Health Association, has been calling for a moratorium on factory farming for 20 years, restated in 2019, due to public health concerns, including the risk of pandemic influenza.
At NutritionFacts.org, you’ll find a library of COVID-19 Resources. The page includes videos explaining where the coronavirus and other zoonotic illnesses come from, how to identify and treat symptoms, and how to help prevent future pandemics.
Zoonosis associated with fish
We shouldn’t overlook fish, who are exploited in greater numbers than all other animals combined. The Washington State Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee documents “various diseases that can be passed from food, bait, ornamental, and tropical fish and shellfish species to people” in their article, “Zoonosis Associated with Fish (Including Aquarium Fish).” Most zoonotic illnesses associated with fish are bacterial infections, and fish are typically long-term carriers before clinical disease is detected. All the more reason to dismantle cruel fish operations.
Dispelling myths about how infectious diseases emerge
While COVID-19 most likely emerged in wet markets in China, similar markets and other animal confinement operations occur around the world. Scientists identified a type of chimpanzee in West Africa as the source of HIV in humans. BSE quite likely originated in the UK as a result of forcing cows to cannibalize. Scientists traced the genetic lineage of the novel H1N1 swine flu to a strain that emerged in U.S. factory farms.
Epidemics are not limited to one country and are not culturally specific. As an advocate, you might encounter an opportunity to dispel a myth and ask why some animals are not socially acceptable to eat, but others are. As Earthling Ed asks, “What is the difference between eating bats or eating pigs or chickens, especially if all three animals are capable of spreading zoonotic diseases?”
How whole-food, plant-based eating boosts immunity and healing during a pandemic
Eating plant-based foods associated with having more antibodies
At the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, you can find a wealth of resources related to COVID-19, including advice on stocking your pantry, boosting your immune system, maintaining fitness while staying at home, and coping with the unique stressors of this current pandemic. The entire site is a great resource for plant-based nutrition and includes a plant-based kickstart guide, recipes, and nutrition courses.
In fact, T. Colin Campbell, co-author of The China Study, shares additional findings from China and Taiwan about the virus hepatitis B (HBV), which causes primary liver cancer, a major cause of death in Africa and Asia. In his article “Could Changing Our Diets Defeat COVID-19?,” he writes:
Relying only on statistically significant findings, [researchers found that] HBV antibody prevalence was highly correlated with vegetable consumption, dietary fiber, and plant protein. In short, more plant food consumption was associated with more antibodies.
Inversely, people who consumed animal protein had fewer antibodies. Campbell also states that scientific evidence already suggests that a whole-food, plant-based diet has a positive effect on overall health and that it effectively reduces comorbidities associated with severe cases of COVID-19.
Plant-based diets boost both innate and adaptive immune responses
In an interview with Plant Based News, Dr. Michael Klaper, a physician, speaker, and educator, explains that there are two types of immunity: innate immunity, which involves nonspecific defenses against bacteria and viruses, and adaptive immunity, which creates antibodies specific to a given virus. The vitamins and minerals in a plant-based diet boost both kinds of immunity in our bodies.
Whole-food, plant-based diets also guard against the preventable chronic illnesses that are risk factors for poor COVID-19 outcomes, such as hypertension, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Scott Stoll, co-founder of The Plantrician Project and VegFund board member, talks to Elizabeth Alfano for The Awesome Vegan Influencer Series about how COVID-19 will influence medical trends in the next few years. Dr. Stoll explains how eating a variety of plant-based whole foods can heal the lining of our blood vessels (endothelium), which are damaged in patients with long-term COVID symptoms. These endothelial cells protect against inflammation, the accumulation of plaque, and the formation of free radicals associated with cancer. Research from Dr. William Li at The Angiogenesis Foundation shows that plant-based foods can heal the lining of the blood vessels, as can other lifestyle habits, such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and stress reduction.
Not all communities are affected by COVID-19 in the same way
“As doctors and as human beings, we need to remove the stench of racism, end the damage it has caused, and restore dignity to make the very best health available to everyone.”
Neal Barnard, MD, Plant-Based Physician
An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Clyde Yancy, MD, MSc explores health care disparities along racial lines, citing that African Americans are more likely to contract COVID-19 and more likely to die from it once contracted.
Evidence suggests that it’s racism and not race itself at the root cause of this observable phenomenon. For example, Dr. Kim Williams explains that after adjusting data models for the risk factors of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol, race itself does not intrinsically factor into why some populations have higher rates of infections and worse outcomes.
Systemic racism can contribute to socioeconomic circumstances that force people to live and work in overcrowded conditions, a risk factor for contracting the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, some communities have inadequate access to foods such as beans, fruits, and vegetables that can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and other risk factors. Some communities lack access to health care, resulting in higher mortality rates, a national and systemic problem.
COVID-19: Race and Lowering the Risk of Death with Nutrition
When reaching out to the public, it’s important to understand the unique experiences of each community and each person. Advocates would be wise to listen and meet people where they are.
The public’s understanding of the link between COVID-19 and consumption of animals
The good news is that COVID-19 has motivated some people, and made it easier, to eat more vegan foods.
Non-profit organization Veganuary recently conducted a survey of past pledge participants and noted that COVID-19 influenced more than a third of respondents to eat more vegan food. Of those, 73% said they are choosing vegan food for health reasons, 43% percent say having more time to cook has helped them eat more vegan food, and 41% are motivated by the link between animal farming and pandemics.
However, evidence shows that many do not fully understand the animal origins of COVID-19. In March of 2020, Faunalytics, an organization that provides data and analysis through original and peer-reviewed research, surveyed 1,000 participants, representative of the population in the United States. Only 10% to 20% appeared to understand the zoonotic (animal-to-human) origins of the novel coronavirus.
As vegan activists, we know that misinformation circulates. We urge you, as Faunalytics recommends, to opt for unbiased media and scientific reporting to fact check your outreach messaging.
the lack of public understanding has allowed unscrupulous corporations to move policy in exactly the wrong direction. Across the globe, corporations have succeeded in creating policies that use public resources to promote industrial farming.
The article is a call to action and encourages us with a reminder that knowing the link between our food system and the risk of pandemics can empower us:
What can we do? The link between factory farming and increasing pandemic risk is well established scientifically, but the political will to curtail that risk has, in the past, been absent. Now is the time to build that will. It really does matter if we talk about this, share our concerns with our friends, explain these issues to our children, wonder together about how we should eat differently, call on our political leaders, and support advocacy organisations fighting factory farming.
Our role as vegan advocates
The science is clear about the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus and other infectious diseases. Past and present outbreaks have emerged due to animal confinement operations created for human consumption. Taking animals off our plates can help prevent future pandemics. Furthermore, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet can optimize our personal health. It’s a win–win. However, the public may not have all the information, or they may need support in acting on what they know. It’s up to us to share our knowledge and experience with others.