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What The Animal Kingdom Teaches Us About Social Distancing

Monkeys, lobsters and even guppies ... They all have an innate understanding that there's only one truly effective way to contain an epidemic.

Mandrills staying at a safe distance
Mandrills staying at a safe distance
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — The pandemic is deep into its second wave. Like a nightmare déjà vu from last spring, hospitals are in danger of overflowing, the health situation forces the politicians to act and the economy risks imploding. Humans of course have experienced this all before over the centuries. But it also looks a lot like what has been conditioning the animal realm forever. Let's look back in time, and elsewhere in nature, to see where we are going.

Like in March, in France as elsewhere, exceptional measures have been put in place that hinder our freedom. The spring lockdown was followed by an autumn curfew and then, starting Oct. 30, another, albeit somewhat lighter, lockdown. The moves have sparked criticisms from their first victims: restaurant owners, gym owners, the entertainment and nightlife world. But inaction was not an option. The government would have faced even more backlash had it done nothing.

There are not a thousand ways to stop the spread of a virus. First, physical interactions between individuals have to be limited — without waiting for science to provide us with certainties. Nothing new here: In 1377, the port of Ragusa broke new ground by imposing on ships a 30-day waiting period to ensure no member of the crew had the plague. The deadline was extended to 40 days for travelers arriving by land.

This "quarantine" was not based on any concrete observation; at most, it found roots in biblical references such as the Flood. But there is a consensus among doctors today on the effectiveness of isolation periods in the fight against epidemics, as closed spaces seem to be a favorite environment for viruses to strike. And though there are no definite figures to corroborate this yet, impressive simulations already show how the virus circulates in a room when someone coughs. An anecdotal case in an air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou, China, also showed the routes of contamination.

It makes sense, therefore, to first limit the capacity of enclosed places, especially where people do not wear masks (bars and restaurants, sports halls) or will inevitably be in close proximity to one another (parties of all kinds, nightclubs, concert halls and theaters.)

Closed spaces seem to be a favorite environment for viruses to strike.

Again, we've been there before. Back in medieval times, towns were already shuttering their closed places in the hopes of reducing the spread of evil. In Europe, during the devastating bubonic plague of the mid-14th century, King John II of France closed the public baths. At the beginning of the 17th century, when the plague returned to London, theaters were most often closed. A rule even specified that closure was compulsory as soon as the number of deaths caused by the plague exceeded 30 per week.

1848 chalk drawing depicting the Great Plague of London — Source: Wellcome Collection gallery

At the time, a certain Shakespeare was chomping at the bit. In 1606, his company could hardly perform. And so, he took the opportunity to pen new plays (King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, all written that year). The playwright knew that the disease was passed from person to person, and that care therefore needed to be taken. In Henry IV, Falstaff says ironically: "It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, one of another. Therefore let men take heed of their company."

Survival strategies

Animals, for their part, don't need such advice to be careful. In times of epidemic, they instinctively practice social or rather physical distancing. They do so both to preserve the species and to be able to continue producing despite the situation, as shown in a fascinating study published by ethologists Valéria Romano, Andrew MacIntosh and Cédric Sueur, in the scientific journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

In some cases, the community confines the sick. A team of French researchers has thus shown that mandrills (a species of monkey related to baboons) use their sense of smell to identify which of their peers are infected with parasites, and spend less time cleaning them to avoid catching their sickness.

Miles away, in the Caribbean waters, an American team observed that a species of lobsters "can identify infected individuals before they become contagious; by avoiding them, they can limit the spread of the disease." In particular, they avoid settling in a sick animal's den. The guppy, a tropical freshwater fish, behaves similarly.

"You washed those claws? — Photo: Jossuha Théophile

In other cases, sick animals self-isolate. Studying mice, a Switzerland-based team showed that "affected animals reduce their movements, quantified by the number of times they enter and leave their nest." On the other hand, their healthy counterparts, aware of their sickness, still do not hesitate to approach them.

And then are ants, which have a very elaborate response for dealing with a disease outbreak. Researchers have found that not only do foragers exposed to a pathogen isolate themselves, but other foragers also reduce their time spent with the rest of the colony. Such disease-induced behavioral responses reduce social connectivity, thereby limiting disease transmission.

In some cases, the community confines the sick.

Man, of course, is not an animal. Or rather, he is an animal, but with far more powerful tools than the others. He can respond to an outbreak with sophisticated drugs and then vaccines. But let's face the facts. If doctors know how to treat COVID-19 patients better than they did six months ago, their remedies are far from being effective enough.

Vaccines are starting to be tested, but there are still many unanswered questions about immunity to the virus, and therefore about the effectiveness of a vaccine. The day a vaccine is eventually ready, we will have to manufacture billions of doses, and then ship them. One of the vaccines currently being tested must be stored at -20 °C, another at -80 °C, and there is, for the moment, no medical logistics able to transport large quantities at such low temperatures.

As we wait for the epidemic to disappear one way or another, we must learn to live with COVID-19. "Just like we have learned how to live with AIDS," business leader Serge Delwasse explained in a recent column. That means wearing masks and, above all, limiting our physical interactions. It's unpleasant for everyone. For some, it's an economic disaster, and those people need support from the community. But for now, there is no better solution.

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