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Coronavirus outbreak exposes prior failures to end exotic wildlife sales

Before COVID-19, multiple virus outbreaks were traced to wildlife pathogens but inaction kept markets open.

Published: March 17, 2020 6:26pm

Updated: March 19, 2020 5:28pm

For more than a decade before the current coronavirus outbreak paralyzed the world, health and wildlife officials were sounding the alarm that exotic markets selling bats, civets, raccoons and other virus-carrying wildlife for human consumption were a pandemic timebomb waiting to explode.

The concerns about the wildlife trade, valued at an estimated $27 billion or more worldwide, were rooted in evidence that prior outbreaks, dating at least to 2003, could be traced to wild animals being sold as delicacies to humans. And now the COVID-19 outbreak has been traced to possible transmission from bats or other wildlife species to humans in China's Wuhan province, further heightening the concerns.

China last month finally took legislative action to ban the wildlife markets, but experts say it was long overdue and must be made permanent. Those experts add that there is far more work to be done across the globe to close down these potential hot spots threatening the human health safety net.

"We must act now to stop the global commercial wildlife trade or accept similar or even worse events to recur or escalate in the future," Dr. Christian Walzer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York told Just the News.

“Seventy-two percent of emerging zoonotic disease events originate from wildlife," reported a 2016 study of Laos wildlife markets funded by USAID. (Zoonotic diseases, or  zoonoses, refer to pathogens that are transmitted from animals to humans.)

"Many of these diseases pose serious risk to human health," according to the study, citing the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa as an example. "Trade that brings wildlife into close proximity with humans and domestic animals provides an interface for pathogen transmission.

"This interface can contribute to disease emergence, as illustrated by the role of wildlife trade in the spread of a suite of diseases including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), monkeypox and highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1. The 2003 SARS outbreak may have been facilitated by wildlife in China, as animal traders were found to have a higher level of exposure to SARS-coronavirus than control populations." (Coronaviruses are a group of viruses with high mutation rates that are known to exist in bats, rodents, camels, and wild cats.)

Other diseases scientists trace to wildlife include Rift Valley fever, pandemic flu, yellow fever, West Nile virus and MERS. They suspect COVID-19 may be linked to wildlife because of its links to the family to which SARS and MERS belong.

SARS was found to have originated in a wildlife market in Central Guangdong Province, and scientists tracked MERS to bats and a transmission from camels to humans. After scientists discovered the SARS and MERS family link to COVID-19 in January, 2020, the Chinese government on Jan. 30, 2020 imposed a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals in wet markets, supermarkets, restaurants and e-commerce platforms.

In February, China went further, indefinitely banning wildlife markets and wildlife consumption throughout the country, even though consumption of wildlife is seen as a luxury and has been consumed in China for centuries. The government called for severe punishments for breaching this ban and for not adhering to strict guidelines for laboratories where animals are tested. (A Chinese laboratory employee notoriously sold lab-experimented animals to a wet market in exchange for a million dollars. He was later convicted and imprisoned.) 

A large portion of wildlife markets, stocked with animals from all corners of the earth, are located across Southeast Asia, extending from Indonesia to Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They are also found in Latin America, Mexico, Europe, Africa, and even in Mongolia.  

The wildlife trade includes, but is not limited to bats, frogs, rats, porcupines, civets, snakes, squirrels, and even pangolins (scaly anteaters), one of the most endangered species on earth.  

Animals may be sold at wet markets for consumption, as exotic pets, or for medicinal, religious, tribal, voodoo, or aphrodisiac purposes.

Vendors and customers come in close contact with live and dead animals in these wet markets, where a bountiful mix of blood, urine, feces, saliva and other bodily fluids flow. New diseases jumping between animals from different habitats are incubated, and these can easily transmit pathogens — be they viruses, parasites, bacteria or fungi — to humans. 

"The animals are captured somewhere in the wild (or alternatively raised on so-called wildlife farms), transported to a market, tightly confined with other species from other locations under stressful conditions which depletes their immune system, facilitating the shedding of viruses and other pathogens," Walzer explained in an email to JTN. "Finally, their slaughter allows for blood and organs to be exposed, which further increases the interface with humans — a perfect breeding ground for new pandemics."

Experts estimate that about one billion cases of human illnesses and millions of deaths occur annually from zoonoses. About 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses, and of the more than 30 new human pathogens detected in the last 30 years, 75% have originated in animals. 

Because bats have a unique immune system and since they fly, their infections may have a wider reach. Bats are used in Asian cooking sauces.

Of the first 41 Chinese patients infected with COVID-19, 27 had had contact with the Wuhan Seafood Market, where a wet market was located. No samples were taken from the market before it was closed and cleaned up. 


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