Outreach
Bringing the Ocean to Society
30 Apr 2020
COVID-19: the ocean, an ally against the virus
UNESCO informs that the marine environment may hold a solution for the pandemic.

When we think of public health risks – UNESCO informs -  we may not think of the ocean as a factor. Increasingly, however, the health of the ocean is intimately tied to our health. Some may be surprised to read that organisms discovered at extreme depths are used to speed up the detection of COVID-19, and that it is likely that the environment gives a solution to humankind.

Bacteria, found in the depths of the ocean, are used to carry out rapid testing to detect the presence of COVID-19. "It is just one of the many prodigious uses of these organisms, which were discovered by some American microbiologists off the Adriatic in 1986", says Francesca Santoro, an oceanographer and researcher at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO).

Francesca Santoro, IOC Project Office at the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe (Venice, Italy), interviewed by Corriere della Sera‘s Quimamme, explained that the ocean is an ally in fighting the virus. Not only does it help in the detection of COVID-19 but to also combat it.

Finding answers in the ocean

Microbiologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute discovered the bacteria that underline this fundamental role for COVID-19. The bacteria were identified years ago. It is also useful to diagnose AIDS and SARS. The research, published in the Journal of Applied & Environmental Microbiology, continues to be of interest today as the ocean is a valid ally against the virus. The ocean is closely tied to human health.

Our ocean and coasts affect us - even those of us who don't live near the shoreline.

"The marine environment is very rich from the point of view of biodiversity and resources useful for humans’ daily life are still to be discovered," points out Francesca Santoro. The deep ocean has already given us compounds to treat cancer, inflammation, and nerve damage. Breakthroughs have also come from the ocean depths in the form of diagnostic tools.

Many people think of the deep sea as a desert. To our naked eye, it looks like there is nothing there, but hydrothermal vents have a remarkable diversity of microbes, including genetic diversity and this is where this huge potential lies.

The environment protects and helps humankind

Solutions to problems that threaten humankind come from the environment. Therefore, humankind should strive, now more than ever, to protect the ocean, rather than suffocate it with waste and plastic. The “health” of the global ocean – the interconnected system of Earth’s oceanic waters - is both affected by and a threat to human activities. While people have lived in harmony with the ocean for generations and have relied on its bounty, things have changed and the Earth is now in great danger.

"Year after year, the connection between human health and ocean health is even more evident. There is more and more research that uses substances produced by marine organisms as solutions to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer," reiterates Francesca Santoro. “For this reason, new generations and families ought to be at the forefront of the battle for the conservation of the ocean.”

Robots hunt for "miraculous" resources

The way these discoveries are made is also fascinating. “Species of robots (ROV) controlled by an oceanographic ship are used for such scope; they make surveys and collect samples to study communities and understand what species there are," says Francesca Santoro.

Findings are however minimal and much is yet to be explored. Only 3 people have so far descended into the Mariana Trench; James Cameron, Titanic’s film director, with a special vertical torpedo, is one of them. For an oceanographer, the moon is better known than the depth of the ocean."

To enhance this type of investigation, the United Nations has launched a decade of studies and insights into marine sciences.

The Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) will provide a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries’ actions to sustainably manage the ocean and more specifically, achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

While this year’s negotiations on climate change, biodiversity and the global ocean were supposed to address the fortunes of a living world in a critical condition, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing drastic changes to the schedule. Health is confirmed to be a priority for all; no exception.

Promoting Ocean Literacy is among UNESCO's goals for the Decade. This is another means to increase the awareness of all - adults and children alike - on the issues of protecting the ocean, so dear to us, which today is an ally against the virus and more generally a wealth to be enhanced also from the point of view of its biodiversity.

The diversity of species found in our ocean offers great promise for a treasure chest of pharmaceuticals and natural products to combat illness and improve our quality of life. Ocean literacy plays an essential role in our future due to the importance for all of us to understand the importance of the ocean.

 

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