The Coronavirus Crisis (Part 1)
Is it Time to Close Wild Animal Markets?
Coronavirus disease 2019 (or COVID-19) is suspected to have originated at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, in December 2019. Wet markets such as this – ‘wet’ because of the melting ice used to preserve goods – are where traders sell fresh meat, fish, and produce. Some, however, also sell live animals, which can be slaughtered and skinned for the customer upon purchase, to demonstrate their freshness. The Huanan Seaford Wholesale Market, for example, was selling a lot more than just fish – snakes, raccoon dogs, deer, porcupines and pangolins are just a few of the wild species that were also for sale there, both dead and alive.
It’s easy to see how wildlife markets like this can cause, or at least easily spread, an outbreak. They are a veritable hotbed for pathogens. Sanitation is often very poor. Dead animals are handled with bare hands. Countertops can quickly become covered in blood and fish guts. There is rarely any form of proper refrigeration. Large crowds of people squeeze down narrow lanes between tightly-packed stalls. Tiny wire cages are piled on top of one another, inside which are crammed species that would probably never meet face-to-face in the wild. These incredibly stressful conditions weaken the animals’ immune systems, creating an environment where mutating viruses can easily slip from one species to another.
And that’s probably what happened with coronavirus. Evidence suggests that COVID-19 originated in horseshoe bats, then jumped the species barrier through an intermediate host (tentatively suggested to be the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal), before making the final leap to humans.
Zoonotic diseases – those that jump from animals to humans – account for over 60% of all pathogens known to infect us. The Spanish flu, which infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – between 1918 and 1920, possibly originated in domestic pigs. Ebola likely came from fruit bats, rabies mainly from bats and dogs, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) from camels. Meanwhile, the consumption of meat from monkeys and apes is almost certainly what allowed SIVs (Simian Immunodeficiency Viruses) to jump species into humans and mutate into HIVs (Human Immunodeficiency Viruses). Most monkeys and apes that carry SIVs do not become ill, probably because, over thousands if not millions of years, their immune systems have developed ways to control the virus. But in humans, who have only recently acquired the disease, HIV becomes pathogenic, resulting in AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).
The current coronavirus pandemic is by no means the first zoonotic disease to have been linked to wildlife markets. Bird flu, for example, infected people for the first time in 1997 when it spread through live-poultry markets in Hong Kong. And SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which is caused by a coronavirus closely related to COVID-19, probably originated from palm civets (see image below and at the top of the article) that were being sold at wildlife markets in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. These animals were eaten not only as a delicacy but also, somewhat ironically, to ward off colds and flu. Though the civets seemed to be immune to the disease, in its human form the virus became pathogenic and spread quickly, causing a global panic.
Wet markets were banned from holding wildlife in China in 2003 following the SARS outbreak, but restrictions were later lifted. Earlier this year, as the Huanan Market’s possible role in the coronavirus’s origin and/or spread became apparent, China put a temporary ban on its wildlife markets, and there are proposals to make it permanent. Whether this will happen, or be enforced, remains to be seen. Looking back at China’s record on this, I’m not overly optimistic, although intense global pressure for them to do so is now growing.
Less than a month after China announced that the trade and consumption of wild animals would be banned throughout the country, the Chinese National Health Commission recommended using Tan Re Qing to treat severe and critical COVID-19 cases. This traditional medicine is an injection containing bear bile, which is usually extracted from the gallbladders of living bears that are kept for years on end in small, cramped cages. According to Animals Asia, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to ending bear bile farming, all methods for extracting bile are invasive and ‘cause severe suffering, pain, and infection.’ There is no evidence that bear bile is an effective treatment for coronavirus, and I don’t think you need me to explain how contradictory it is to shut down the trade in live wild animals for food on one hand, while promoting the trade in wild animal parts on the other.
The End of Wildlife Markets?
To avoid some of the ‘anti-Chinese’ overtones of much of the talk surrounding coronavirus, I should point out that wildlife markets exist in several other Southeast Asian countries and many major African cities as well. In fact, wildlife markets are not as common in China as the media might have you believe. Many closed down in the years following the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. However, they still exist, both in China and elsewhere, and many health professionals and animal-rights activists have called for the permanent closure of all live wildlife markets globally, not only for the sake of the animals themselves but also to help prevent future pandemics.
These cramped, unsanitary, highly stressful places are undeniably bad for the welfare of millions of individual animals. They’re also bad for conservation because one of the major drivers of species extinction is the illegal wildlife trade. And, as the coronavirus crisis has shown us, they’re extremely bad for human health, too. SARS was responsible for at least 774 human deaths, which is a fraction of the approximately 775,000 killed (as of this writing) by COVID-19. And some experts fear that coronavirus may well be the forerunner of something even more sinister to come. How deadly does a global calamity have to be before real change is implemented?
It seems that now, finally, we are taking the steps to permanently close wildlife markets down. That in itself won’t magically stop all future outbreaks, since industrial farming can also create rapidly-evolving zoonotic viruses, but it’s certainly a start. It’s just a shame that it took a huge amount of human suffering and a global financial bill in the trillions of pounds for people to take action.
In the second part of The Coronavirus Crisis, I’ll be looking at how lockdowns worldwide have impacted nature and the climate.