When I visited the “wet” seafood market in Wuhan, China, in 2017 — the city where this novel coronavirus first emerged — I counted 56 animal species. About two thirds were wild species such as pangolins, bamboo rats and migratory birds, while the others were domestic livestock such as chickens, pigs and rabbits. The conditions in the market were cramped and unclean. Butchering was being done in open, crowded areas and animal enclosures were stacked one on top of the other. Many of the creatures, some endangered, were clearly stressed and weak. This despite the fact that Chinese authorities had issued a strict crackdown on wildlife sales after the SARS outbreak of 2003. Yet, through a complex pattern of loopholes, wildlife farming and the black market trade was still going on.
While plenty of pundits and public health experts have weighed in on how long it will take to develop a treatment and vaccine for COVID-19, and how to flatten the curve, fewer have paused to consider the true cause of this pandemic and what it will take to prevent another.
Many commentators are referring to this as a once-in-a-century event. Yet what we know of emerging disease suggests this may be nowhere near accurate. In the last century, a combination of massive population growth, erosion of ecosystems and crashing biodiversity have culminated in rising opportunities for pathogens to pass from animals to people.
There are wildlife markets in many parts of the world, not just China. The World Health Organization has called on all countries to close wet markets, amid warnings about the risks posed by environments where humans are in close contact with animals and where pathogens can spread quickly from animals to humans.
Emerging from my work in great ape conservation, in the late 1990s I began to scout wildlife markets to assess the toll of the bush meat trade on the great ape populations of central Africa. I partnered with American researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland who were studying the genesis of emerging diseases associated with the consumption of wild animals, such as Ebola and HIV. In my naivety, I truly believed that once peer-reviewed reports emerged clearly identifying the risk to global health and the security of all nations, a multitude of organizations, from the WHO to the U.S. State Department, would begin to monitor and mitigate such massive threats.
Responses, however, were piecemeal, underfunded and sporadic. I was a health care worker in Toronto during the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the most important lesson was that of the very genesis of the SARS outbreak: the consequences of environmental deterioration and the commodification and consumption of wild animals. The WHO website lists more than 30 major zoonotic diseases of concern. But the inertia continued.
Although the origins of COVID-19 are unproven, there are strong indications of a wild animal source and a direct link to the wildlife trade in China. Even if indications of this link prove wrong, the COVID-19 outbreak has attracted strong attention to a growing number of examples of wildlife-sourced diseases emerging. And the problem is not just confined to China. There are wildlife markets in many countries. In Africa, the bush meat trade continues to exist mostly unchecked, with great risk to people all over the world.
Over the past 50 years, governments around the planet have begun to enact international, national and local legislation aimed at regulating the trade in wild animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is the principal instrument for international cooperation in the wildlife trade. Its primary purpose, and that of most national wildlife trade organizations is not, however, global health. The legislation is designed to address problems arising from over-exploitation of wildlife species.
And such regulations are inconsistently applied along trade chains. The great challenge is the double-edged problem that most wildlife trade regulations are not focused on preventing disease transmission and most animal health laws are not focused on the wild animal trade. Global enforcement of the wildlife trade is spotty, underfunded and given minimal priority.
Wildlife trade is only a symptom of a much larger problem. As the human population surges toward nine billion, demand for food and encroachment on natural ecosystems through deforestation, mining, agricultural production and other human activities are eroding biodiversity and providing new hosts to pathogens. As the global climate shifts and temperatures elevate, natural habitats are destroyed or altered, becoming uninhabitable for some species.
As we lose biodiversity, we weaken the natural system that finds fixes to defend against pathogens, in turn making them more powerful. Biodiversity in healthy ecosystems impedes the potential for a pathogen “spillover” from wild animals to humans.
At present, only about 23 per cent of our planet remains in a natural state. But this is changing rapidly. During the past 10 years alone, we have seen about three million hectares of forest per year cut down. Measures to curtail zoonotic diseases must include protecting natural spaces. Such spaces are essential in safeguarding biodiversity and increasing the resilience of ecosystems, both on land and in the oceans. In 2010, governments around the world agreed on a global biodiversity plan to protect 17 per cent of land and 10 per cent of the ocean by 2020. To date, the targets for land have not been met, primarily due to a failure to meet funding commitments.
The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually end. And yet, if we fail to change the commodification and consumption of wild animals, we are sitting ducks for the next novel zoonotic disease to take us by storm.