By Pat Pepper, NCWQ Environmental Adviser

Summary: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic  and since more than 70% of all new diseases emerging in humans are thought to have been caught from animals, factors  contributing to  zoonotic transmission are explored e.g. conditions in wildlife wet markets, illicit global wildlife trade.  Environmental and cultural issues are raised. The focus of this report has been on China since the COVID-19 pandemic began there. But there is no reason to suppose a similar pandemic could not begin elsewhere in Southeast Asia, South Asia, sub‐ Saharan Africa, or Latin America.

To avoid another pandemic, global cooperation is essential.  The unanimous passing of the EU and Australian led resolution at the World Health Assembly for an inquiry into the origins of and the international response to COVID-19, is encouraging. To a certain extent, nations and regions can undertake measures to ban wildlife sections in wet markets, enforce strict hygiene regulations, legislate on animal welfare, enforce wildlife trade legislation and undertake public outreach campaigns on these issues. However global illicit wildlife trade  can only be achieved through global cooperation.

Wet markets: For many low and middle-income countries wet markets provide fresh meat and other perishable goods for people who lack access to refrigeration. They are the predominate food-source for billions of people, particularly those living below the poverty line. The food is cheap and perceived to be fresher than in grocery stories. Given that food moves quickly in a wet market situation to prevent it spoiling and research in food safety have shown that the likelihood of foodborne disease increases with the length of value chains, there are some grounds for this belief. https://reachout.aciar.gov.au/wet-markets-not-so-cut-and-dry.  Unfortunately hygiene standards in some markets leave a lot to be desired,

Wet markets with wildlife sections: Some wet markets in parts of Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania have a section for trading in exotic wildlife, slaughtering and selling live animals on site. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7057189/  Not only are the products seen as  fresher, not expensive but also the market  provides rare types of creatures that serve as status symbols or are believed to possess unique healing elements.  Aguirre, A. Alonso, Catherina, Richard, Frye, Hailey   and Louise Shelley. Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets, and COVID‐19:  Preventing Future Pandemics.  World Medical and Health Policy · June 2020

In China, the wildlife trade is estimated to be a 520 billion yuan (US$740 billion) business employing more than 14 million people. A wide variety of exotic species from quail, to ostriches, snakes, crocodiles and civets are bred. About 7.6 million people are in the fur and leather industry valued at about 390 billion yuan. The rest help breed and process animals for food. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3051896/chinas-frog-breeders-silenced-over-opposition-wildlife-trade

In addition, many animals are poached, imported, and exported illegally for food, medicine, trophies, and pets.  For example, although it is against the law, the critically endangered migratory songbird, the Yellow-breasted Bunting  is trapped at its wintering grounds in China  and eaten as a delicacy. https://www.worldmigratorybirdday.org/2017/species/yellow-breasted-bunting

2014 study that surveyed more than a thousand people in five Chinese cities found radically different practices in different parts of the country. In Guangzhou in the southeast and a frequent destination for yellow-breasted buntings, 83% of people interviewed had eaten wildlife in the previous year; in Shanghai, 14% had, and in Beijing, just 5%. While only the rich can afford soup made with palm civet, fried cobra, or braised bear paw, frogs are a common and inexpensive wildlife dish. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/01/china-bans-wildlife-trade-after-coronavirus-outbreak/

According to a report in the South China Morning Post on January 29, 2020, Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market which was identified as the likely source of many early cases of COVID-19,  had a section that sold some 120 different wildlife animals across 75 species. According to other reports, the wet market sold live animals including, but not limited to wolf cubs, camels, peacocks, bats, pangolins, pigs, crocodiles, and dogs. https://sentientmedia.org/wet-markets-zoonotic-diseases/May 14, 2020

In Indonesia wildlife wet markets selling slaughtered bats alongside other exotic animal meats continue to operate under conditions similar to those in China. At North Sulawesi’s Tomohon “extreme meat” market, bat carcas­ses, charred dog bodies, pig heads, eviscerated pythons suspended from meat hooks, whole cooked rats on sticks were photographed for sale. In Jakarta’s Jatinegara market, live bats — slaughtered for their hearts, which are considered good for asthmatics — were displayed in cages wedged against others ­holding known coronavirus vector species such as illegally caught civets, monkeys and snakes. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/world/coronavirus-extreme-markets-flourish-in-indonesia/news-story/d0ef55fd8fb0950023bc911f51705302 April 28th 2020

Animal Welfare Concerns: In places where wet markets are most common, such as China, animal welfare regulations are still developing. For example, there is no legal requirement to “humanely” slaughter animals by first stunning them and rendering them insensitive to pain. However one survey found over 70% of respondents supporting the improvement of rearing conditions for farmed animals. Around 65% agreed to establish laws to improve animal welfarehttps://sentientmedia.org/wet-markets-zoonotic-diseases/

Hygiene in wet wildlife markets has long been a major concern. Stressed and frightened animals who may be infected with diseases can urinate, defecate, and excrete other biofluids in essentially the same areas where they are killed and their meat is taken by customers. Substandard hygienic practices are contributing to the transmission of a broad range of infections, including COVID-19. https://sentientmedia.org/wet-markets-zoonotic-diseases/

Malta, Monica ,  Rimoin, Anne W.and Steffanie A. Strathdee  The coronavirus 2019-nCoV epidemic: Is hindsight 20/20? EClinicalMedicine. 2020 Mar; 20: 100289.

The Risk of Transmitting Zoonotic Diseases: More than 70% of all new diseases emerging in humans are thought to have been caught from animals, some of which, such as bats, primates and rodents, might have lived with the viruses for thousands of years.

In the past half century, deadly disease outbreaks caused by novel viruses of animal origin include

  • Nipah virus in Malaysia,
  • Hendra virus in Australia,
  • Hanta virus in the United States,
  • Ebola virus in Africa,
  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus),
  • several influenza subtypes,
  • SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus and
  • MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronavirus.

Bats have served as a reservoir species with the following animals as transmission hosts

  • pigs for Nipah virus
  • horses for Hendra virus,
  • primates and bats for Ebola,
  • civet cats as for SARS and
  • dromedary camels for MERS-Co.

Bat viruses tend to be very stable but once the virus has jumped to a new host species, it can mutate and grow in potency before leaping again into humans.

Forum on Microbial Threats; Board on Global Health; Institute of Medicine. Emerging Viral Diseases: The One Health Connection: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Mar 19. Workshop Overview. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK284993/

 https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/how-does-an-epidemic-spread-and-what-does-the-wildlife-trade-have-to-do-with-it-20200129-p53vvm.html

COVID-19:  A few years ago, scientists traced the origin of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus to a fruit bat found in Yunnan province, but about 4% of its genes were new. A coronavirus isolated from pangolins is a 99% genetic match to the one that has killed many people in Central China according to a study by a team of Chinese civilian and military scientists. This suggested pangolins could be an intermediate host. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3049538/could-pangolins-be-piece-coronavirus-puzzle

The emergence of disease from wildlife and spread to and among humans has been driven by

the escalated need for food production to meet present and future demand leading to the intrusion of agriculture into previously untouched areas of the native environment   As

populations grow  and expand geographically there are increasing opportunities for contact with wildlife and disturbance of  habitat.

  • The impact of climate change resulting in disturbances in ecosystems and a redistribution of disease reservoirs and vectors.
  • Increased globalization and travel significantly increasing the chance, extent, and spread at which disease transmission occurs.

Forum on Microbial Threats; Board on Global Health; Institute of Medicine. Emerging Viral Diseases: The One Health Connection: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Mar 19. Workshop Overview. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK284993/

As a consequence of environmental destruction, bats, reservoirs of zoonotic viruses, seek new areas to feed, sometimes causing them to come into contact with livestock that will be eventually sold in open markets. Viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans are very dangerous to human life due to the absence of herd immunity among the human population. Aguirre, A. Alonso, Catherina, Richard, Frye, Hailey   and Louise Shelley. Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets, and COVID‐19:  Preventing Future Pandemics.  World Medical and Health Policy · June 2020

Traditional Medicine:  The Chinese traditional medicine industry, which heavily relies on ancient belief in the healing powers of animal parts, is a massive driver of the wildlife trade. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/01/china-bans-wildlife-trade-after-coronavirus-outbreak/

Traditional medicines containing threatened wildlife parts such as pangolin scales, leopard bones, saiga horn and the bile of captive-bred bears are still legal in China. The Beijing Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM), which provides guidance for medical institutions in the municipality on treatments using TCM promotes a treatment containing bile extracted from the gallbladders of caged bears as part of an official COVID-19 treatment plan https://eia-international.org/news/unbelievable-chinese-govt-recommends-injections-containing-bear-bile-to-treat-coronavirus/

Illicit Global Wildlife trade and threat to biodiversity: The global trade in exotic wildlife, sold for meat, parts and as exotic pets, is now the world’s fourth-largest contraband market after drugs, humans and guns. Trade in protected species is estimated at least $22 billion each year globally and demand is growing fast, but largely under-policed. The main corridor of trade, South-east Asia, includes China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, with China still the biggest market, having outlawed the consumption of protected species only in recent years. But US and Europe’s markets are increasing.

China has banned ivory but continues to allow commercial farming of certain animals for their parts, including the critically endangered tiger.  In addition to civets and the critically endangered migratory songbird, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, being  served as delicacies, the endangered pangolin, the world’s most illegally trafficked animal, is in demand for its scales and meat in cuisine and traditional medicine. Other products such as tiger bone and rhino horn are increasingly sold as status symbols or cures for everything from cancer to hangovers. https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/how-does-an-epidemic-spread-and-what-does-the-wildlife-trade-have-to-do-with-it-20200129-p53vvm.html

Breeding centres are allowed to operate under loopholes in Chinese domestic law, arguably against the spirit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-has-finally-made-us-recognise-the-illegal-wildlife-trade-is-a-public-health-issue-133673

The Department of Agriculture and Environment says Australia’s unique wildlife is highly sought after abroad as pets and has been reported in Asia, Europe and North America. Data since 2017 shows Border Force has made about 500 seizures of illegal wildlife products a year, including turtle shells, ivory and animal skins, most of them imports. Australia now has some of the toughest penalties in the world – up to 10 years’ jail and $210,000 in fines. https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/how-does-an-epidemic-spread-and-what-does-the-wildlife-trade-have-to-do-with-it-20200129-p53vvm.html

Chinese Legislation: In February, the Chinese Government  banned the consumption of most terrestrial wild animals as food in the wake of COVID-19, although the ban does not cover use of wildlife products in traditional Chinese medicine or as ornamental items.https://eia-international.org/news/unbelievable-chinese-govt-recommends-injections-containing-bear-bile-to-treat-coronavirus This temporary ban covered some 20,000 captive enterprises and 54 different species allowed to be traded domestically.

The Chinese government has now issued a new draft list of livestock that can be farmed for meat including dietary staples such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep, as well as “special livestock” such as a number of species of deer, alpaca and ostriches.  Two species of fox, raccoons and minks can be kept as livestock but not for their meat.  There is no mention of the species of animal which are suspected by scientists to have spread the virus to humans, such as pangolins, bats and civet cats. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/10/asia/china-wildlife-law-coronavirus-intl-hnk/index.html 

As China’s parliament prepares new laws to permanently ban the trade and consumption of wildlife, local action plans published this week suggest the country’s fur trade and lucrative traditional medicine sectors will continue as usual. https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/china-legislators-take-on-wildlife-trade-skip-traditional-medicine-20200521-p54v5s.htm

With a national plan, Chinese authorities have pledged to buy out breeders in an attempt to curb exotic animal breeding. Two major wildlife breeding central provinces, Hunan and Jiangxi, have already outlined details of a buyout program to help farmers switch to alternative livelihoods. Hunan has set out a compensation scheme to persuade breeders to rear other livestock or produce tea and herbal medicines. Authorities will evaluate farms and inventories and offer a one-off payment of 120 yuan ($16) per kilogram of rat snake, king ratsnake and cobra, while a kilogram of bamboo rat will fetch 75 yuan and a civet, 600yuan. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wuhan-china-coronavirus-bans-eating-wild-animals-breeding-wet-markets/. These buy back and compensation schemes are commendable.

Still, the numerous exceptions in the Chinese legislation allow breeding of some wildlife to be used for traditional Chinese medicine, as long as they are not consumed as food for humans. If breeding centres for endangered species like tigers or pangolins could be permanently closed, it would be much harder for products to be laundered through legal channels and sold as more valuable wild product. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-has-finally-made-us-recognise-the-illegal-wildlife-trade-is-a-public-health-issue-133673

Global Problem needing Global Remedies: Some organisations are calling for blanket bans.  However, there are dangers. The trade could be driven underground where hygiene regulation would be near impossible. A black market could encourage corruption and even increase the risk of the trade being controlled by organised crime. 

Some measures to address the problem could be taken at the national or even regional level.

  • Banning wild life sections in wet markets. There is widespread support for closure of unregulated wildlife markets across Southeast Asia: In a March poll commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, about 5,000 people in Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, 93 percent of participants supported governments taking action to eliminate illegal and unregulated wildlife markets. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/04/coronavirus-linked-to-chinese-wet-markets/
  • Enforcing strict hygiene regulations,
  • Legislating animal welfare,
  • Undertaking public outreach campaigns about the dangers of wild life sections in wet markets and exotic meats,
  • Enforcing legislation to combat illicit wildlife trade in endangered or exotic animals

However cooperation is needed at the global level on law enforcement to combat illicit wildlife trade

Australian researchers have developed a “Border Force-ready” test on echidna spines to detect whether wild echidnas are being laundered out of New Guinea. After the success of that trial, the team is hoping to develop a similar test for pangolin scales, which are trafficked by the tonne across the globe.https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/how-does-an-epidemic-spread-and-what-does-the-wildlife-trade-have-to-do-with-it-20200129-p53vvm.html

Training Program to help prevent spread of animal to human diseases: Since the majority of emerging infectious diseases, such as coronavirus, are zoonotic, a $4.3m program funded by the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security (IPCHS)  at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade  and  led by scientists from Schools of Veterinary Science in Universities across Australia, New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific, will engage with government animal health authorities and educators in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen the capacity to detect, respond, control and prevent animal disease outbreaks that could affect human health, animal health and farmer livelihoods.  Program leader, Associate Professor Navneet Dhand, from the University of Sydney  said transboundary animal diseases, which travel quickly across borders, and zoonotic diseases, are increasing in frequency due to a range of factors including population growth, urbanisation and increasing global air travel. The program will run for three years in Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Philippines, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The rapid transmission of COVID-19 and its huge economic and health impact has demonstrated the need for this training. https://about.unimelb.edu.au/newsroom/news/2020/april/new-project-to-help-prevent-spread-of-animal-to-human-diseases

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/coronavirus-animal-disease-detectives-to-fight-human-transmission/news-story/eac91743b7fad9da747bbee3f69229f4;

The IPCSH is partnering with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to strengthen health security of the above countries, including through National Bridging Workshops (NBW) that aim to bring human and animal health colleagues together to identify priority areas for action and collaboration. To better prevent and control infectious diseases of which 75% are zoonotic, systems for human health and animal health need to be closely linked. https://indopacifichealthsecurity.dfat.gov.au/one-health-partnership-strengthen-animal-and-human-health

Coronavirus inquiry resolution adopted at World Health Assembly. On the 19th May 2020 at the 73rd World Health Assembly, an EU and Australian led resolution for an inquiry into the origins of and the international response to coronavirus stablished at the earliest possible opportunity, was adopted unanimously. The review will identify the source of the virus and the route of introduction from other animals to the human population, as well as consider lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19. https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/coronavirus-inquiry-resolution-adopted-at-world-health-assembly-as-china-signs-on-20200519-p54ukn.html

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