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Will deep sea mining destroy our best clues to Coronavirus?

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Scientists and environmental advocates warn of the risks of deep sea mining and its related effects on the ocean’s life support systems, biodiversity and the Earth’s climate. What about the potential loss of unique marine resources that could provide valuable answers for modern medicine, including how to tackle Coronaviruses?

The question is simple. Will potential profit from undersea mining for rare precious minerals win over the probable loss of critical information and natural resources that could hold answers to all kinds of medical treatments, vaccines and cures, including for COVID-19?

With the future of deep sea mining to be determined by an International Seabed Authority (ISA) treaty vote scheduled for July 2020, and a global pandemic still altering our daily lives, the question could not be better timed.

Awareness of ocean plastic pollution has risen to new heights across the globe, yet the issue of deep ocean mining remains buried in a sea of governmental and corporate hide and seek.

Big oil and other would-be prospectors prepare for mining opportunities, while global leaders positioned for potentially huge economic benefits meet in closed door sessions of the ISA, which has already issued deep sea licenses to a number of corporate entities. No actual mining is yet underway, only “testing” the waters – pun intended.

Until the late 19th century, the deep ocean’s dark, frigid characteristics were assumed to be too severe for life to survive, so it remained largely unexplored. Today, experts say we still know more about our moon and outer space than we do about our oceans.

As Oceanic Magazine, Forbes and others reported amid COVID-19 headlines in March, Sir David Attenborough, 93-year-old English broadcaster and active environmentalist, is urging countries to terminate plans to mine for minerals in the deep sea. His comments follow publishing of a report by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), which calls for a moratorium on deep sea mining.

The report details evidence that the practice is likely to cause significant disruption to the ocean, its inhabitants, and its natural resources – much of which have not yet been identified, let alone studied for potential human, animal and climate benefits. Attenborough is a vice president of the FFI, which works to protect threatened species and ecosystems worldwide.

The alchemy of marine resources is in fact visible in treatments across medical disciplines, including Coronaviruses that have struck and killed before. As the urgent search is on for prevention, treatment and a cure for COVID-19, scientists and advocates ask decision makers to consider what is possible now and in the future from marine research – and what could stand in its way.

Scientists are looking to the sea for biological disease clues from unique life forms such as rare corals and microscopic microbes found in the deep ocean floor. According to FFI and Attenborough, these are just a few examples of extremely valuable resources for modern medicine, including Coronaviruses.

The FFI says deep seabed mining should be halted until “exploitation technologies and operational practices are able to demonstrate no serious harm to the environment and no net loss of biodiversity.”

“We’re simply asking for research to come first, to know what is down there before we ruin it,” says Vasser Seydel, an environmentalist who is deeply involved in the issue. “And that will take time. Once we dig it up, there is no turning back the clock.”

Presumably prospectors would have to conduct testing in the areas they apply for licenses to mine, but gaps in scientific understanding make it incredibly difficult to carry out effective baseline and impact assessments for the deep sea, according to a 2018 scientific report, An Overview of Seabed Mining Including the Current State of Development, Environmental Impacts, and Knowledge Gaps.

"We need credible environmental studies," adds Seydel, "not carried out by the mining industry, primarily fossil fuel-funded companies."

According to Forbes contributing author Nishan Degnarain, a protein from an ocean seabed algae found among coral reefs was identified in 2016 to be a potential inhibitor to the coronavirus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS. MERS is a close relative of the Coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

“This is just one of over 40 marine compounds that have anti-viral properties and are undergoing pre-clinical and clinical trials around the world,” he reports.

About 50 percent of modern drugs have been developed from natural products that are threatened by biodiversity loss, according to a March 9 post by the World Economic Forum: How biodiversity loss is hurting our ability to combat pandemics.

In fact, more and more researchers are looking to nature-based resources for drug development that might result in new therapeutic options for many of today’s most prevalent diseases. And this pharmaceutical shift from synthetic biology to the utilization of marine-based compounds is even more important than ever, as infectious diseases increasingly become drug-resistant.

Compounds from marine sources are being tested to treat breast cancer and other tumor diseases, asthma and more. Some types of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma respond well to a treatment derived from a Caribbean sponge. For chronic pain, one extensively tested drug is based on venom from a Pacific cone snail. Its stingers can paralyze and kill fish and humans, so why not severe chronic pain?

Currently on the market are two antiviral drugs rooted in marine product chemistry that dates back to compounds from a sponge isolated some 60 years ago. AZT fights the AIDS virus that causes HIV. And Acyclovir treats herpes infections.

“The evidence we have gathered suggests it’s time to pause deep sea mining plans and reconsider our use of the ocean before it’s too late,” says FFI Director Pippa Howard. “From methane release to disruption of the ocean’s life-support systems and the destruction of unstudied ecosystems, the risks of deep sea mining are numerous and potentially disastrous.”

The fate of the deep sea and the fate of our planet are intimately intertwined,” Attenborough says in the FFI report foreword. “That we should be considering the destruction of these places and the multitude of species they support – before we have even understood them and the role they play in the health of our planet – is beyond reason.”

The rush to mine this pristine, unexplored environment risks creating terrible impacts that cannot be reversed, he adds. “We need to be guided by science when faced with decisions of such great environmental consequence.”

This story first appeared in The Oxygen Project April 2020

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