A Primer: On COVID-19 Coronavirus

February 11, 2020

UPDATE

At WCS, we applaud China for declaring it is revising and strengthening wildlife protection laws and regulations. We caution that it’s about strengthening wildlife laws broadly and not simply focusing on bats, pangolins, and snakes.

Interview

The most important factor in the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus is wildlife markets, says WCS's Dr. Christian Walzer. They must be closed around the world.


Key Questions

What is the Wildlife Conservation Society's main message concerning the Wuhan coronavirus?

As Dr. Walzer states in the video above, WCS is asking China and others governments to close live animal markets that trade in wild animals—whether these animals come from the wild or whether they are farmed-wildlife. There are three clear steps we are advocating for to prevent the spread of similar zoonotic diseases: close live animal markets that sell wildlife; strengthen efforts to combat trafficking of wild animals within countries and across borders; and work to change dangerous wildlife consumption behaviors, especially in cities.

Won’t closing these markets hurt the poor?

No. Wildlife populations are being depleted as they are poached and hunted. Viral outbreaks lead to mass culling of domestic animals, which increases the cost of basic animal protein, hitting the poor the hardest.

Why do we suspect the Wuhan coronavirus is a spill-over from animals to humans?

Scientists from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control have confirmed a live animal market teeming with a multitude of wildlife species as the origin of the Wuhan coronavirus. Dr. Zhong Nanshan, director of the China State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease, who became famous for leading the fight against SARS 17 years ago, pinpointed on Chinese state television the likely source of the new coronavirus as wildlife. Environmental samples from the Wuhan market have been linked to wildlife.

Why are these live animal markets that sell animals for food such a problem?

It is hard to design more perfect conditions for new viruses to emerge than market systems such as that in Wuhan: Tightly pack together a variety of species from around the country or the world and transport them long distances directly into large markets. Ensure that these massively stressed and immuno-compromised wild animals are in close proximity to domestic and farmed animals. Then distribute these animals out to major urban populations for consumption.

1zipu2r9u5 10. rat wet market in dong thap province october 2013
Photo Credit: ©WCS Vietnam

What action has the Chinese government taken about these markets with this outbreak?

The Chinese government is to be applauded for acting quickly, as three government agencies took the first step, announcing a nationwide ban prohibiting all wild animal trading activities with immediate effect. This includes not only wet markets, but supermarkets restaurants and e-commerce platforms. The announcement also stated that “any violation of the provisions of this announcement shall be investigated and dealt with severely in accordance with the law and regulations”. However, this is not enough, as the ban currently only covers the period until “the epidemic situation is lifted nationwide”. It must be permanent.

Is it a common occurrence for viruses to be transmitted from animals to humans?

The resulting re-assortment and exchange of viral components between species at live animal markets is a major source of new viruses. These can be zoonotic, i.e., transmitted from animals to humans (e.g., Avian Influenza, SARS, MERS), and subsequently successfully mutate so that they can transmit between humans, creating the conditions for a rapid global pandemic.

Are there markets like this outside of China?

Similar markets occur in cities across other Asian countries and if these persist, and human consumption of wildlife goes on, then we will continue to face heightened risks from emerging new viruses, potentially more lethal.

1pggbfw5ni 9. slaughtering rat in wet market in dong thap province october 2013
Photo Credit: ©WCS Vietnam

What do the people in China and Chinese media think about closing these markets?

A large and growing number of people in China support closing these markets. On Chinese social media, support for the issue has been among the highest trending topics on Weibo (China’s most popular microblog site) over the last week, with the hashtag “#The Source of the New Coronavirus is Wild Animals” viewed 1.2 billion times. The hashtag "#National Wildlife Trading Is Banned Until the Epidemic is Over” has amassed 400 million views over 24 hours since it was announced, and the view of Chinese netizens is clear: “It should be permanently banned. Do you want to have another epidemic?,” “Reject wild meat, ban forever and punish offenders severely,” “It is for the sake of human life, health, safety, and maintenance of natural harmony that wildlife trading activities should be permanently banned from now on.”

Not only that. State media and academics agree. The China Daily recently headlined, “It’s Time to Permanently Ban Wildlife Trade” and Sina News, “It’s Time to Ban Wild Animal Trading.” While a group of senior Chinese academics, including the former president of Peking University and Dr. Shi Zhengli of Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academic of Science (who is one of the scientists who identified bats as the original carrier of SARs), have publicly called on China’s National People’s Congress to end the illegal trade and consumption of wild animals by issuing emergency legislation integrating public health and safety concerns into the wildlife protection law.

Where can I read more about the spill-over from animals to humans in connection to the Wuhan coronavirus?

The New York Times: China’s Omnivorous Markets Are in the Eye of a Lethal Outbreak Once Again
The Washington Post: Coronavirus outbreak underscores potential health risks in China’s wild animal trade
The Washington Post: China temporarily bans wildlife trade in wake of outbreak
The Guardian: Calls for global ban on wild animal markets amid coronavirus outbreak

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