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Wildlife Markets and the Coronavirus

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Wildlife Markets

The emergence of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first linked to the sale of wild animals for human consumption in wildlife markets and/or wildlife farms in China. Since the outbreak began in 2020, however, scientists and other experts, recognizing that this link had not been proven with certainty, have continued to explore other possible sources. The most likely alternative is that the virus accidentally leaked from a scientific research institute, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nonetheless, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, stated in May, 2021 that, “It is most likely that this is a virus that arose naturally, but we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident.” While the origin of the virus may remain somewhat in question, it is still valuable and important to understand the link between wildlife markets and wildlife farms and disease transmission from non-human animals to humans.

What is the connection between the coronavirus pandemic and wildlife markets?

Wildlife markets and wildlife farms create conditions in which the transfer of animal-based diseases (zoonoses) from non-human animals to humans is highly likely. Several other zoonotic diseases and outbreaks, for example, also originated from wildlife markets, including Ebola, HIV, SARS, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In fact, an estimated 75% of emerging infectious diseases among humans are zoonotic, meaning they are spread between animals and people.

I’ve heard these markets are called “wet markets.” Why is that?

It’s important to understand that the term “wet market” is oftentimes used in an overgeneralized and confusing manner. Many “wet markets” consist of several very different, and separated, sections. There is typically a part of the market that carries no animals at all, but rather items like fruits, vegetables, flour, and even cooking utensils. There is also typically a section that carries more common livestock, like pigs, chickens, and seafood, which is separate from the area where wildlife are sold. A more precise definition of “wet markets” are markets that sell live and dead animals, ranging from livestock to fish to wild animals of any kind.

Interestingly, the wildlife component of these markets in China is relatively small and relatively new. It’s only since roughly the 1980s that these markets began including wildlife, and the wildlife component makes up as little as 10% of the overall market.

Do live wildlife markets and wildlife farms exist outside of China?

Yes, they exist around the world.

Why do so many zoonotic diseases emerge from wildlife markets?

There are several reasons. Live animals in wildlife markets are kept in extremely cramped and inhumane conditions, not unlike in factory farms in the U.S., which subjects them to high levels of stress and, just like people, when animals are stressed they are more likely to get sick. And because they are in such confined conditions, and also because it is not unusual for different species to be kept in close quarters with one another, illnesses among the animals spread readily. Cages are often stacked on top of each other, facilitating easy exchange of all types of bodily fluids. Additionally, animals are slaughtered and sold on-site, which creates many opportunities for viruses to jump from animals to people.

If we close all live wildlife markets and wildlife farms will that protect us from future zoonotic diseases?

Yes and no. It’s part of the solution, but not the whole solution.

Wildlife markets, such as the one in Wuhan that is believed to be where COVID-19 first made the jump from animals to humans, are only one component of the vast and multifaceted wildlife trade. To help prevent more pandemics like this one, leaders need to crack down on all aspects of the trade, transport, and consumption of wildlife. For example, while the inhumane conditions of animals at live wildlife markets increases disease spread, the long and stressful transport that they undergo to arrive at the market contributes as well.

Breeding facilities, such as fur farms, create environments where zoonotic disease can easily emerge as well. The wildlife trade for exotic pets and petting zoos also puts people at risk of contracting zoonotic diseases. And this wildlife trade, in all its forms, is fueled by nations around the world.

The United States, for example, is the second largest market for illegal wildlife products. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found that over 2.5 million animal products and over 90,000 live animals were imported illegally to the U.S. over a decade. And, because of limitations in detection and enforcement capacity, these numbers represent only a fraction of the actual numbers—possibly only 10% of the true numbers.

The solution to avoiding future pandemics such as COVID-19, and to prevent wildlife abuse overall, is likely to involve the enforcement of existing laws on the global trade, transport, and consumption of wildlife, and comprehensive reform of some industries in their entirety. The COVID-19 pandemic provides as clear an example as any of how our treatment of animals can directly impact our own health and well-being.

Is anything being done to address this issue?

Yes, a number of leaders are taking action. China announced a ban on buying and selling wild animals for food. Also, a group of more than 60 bipartisan lawmakers called for an immediate global ban on live wildlife markets and the international trade of live wildlife in a letter to the World Health Organization. The effort is being led by Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), and Representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

A bipartisan group of Senators (Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; and Joe Manchin, D-W.V.) also plan to propose a bill that would ban agencies and government grantees and contractors from spending money at the markets.

On May 4, 2020 A. 10399, was introduced in New York to shut down its live markets to reduce risk of disease spread and convene taskforce to examine public health risks and animal welfare concerns. California’s SB 1175 would cut off imports of any wildlife that could spread zoonotic disease like COVID-19 or that are invasive species, which are currently sold in California’s at least 25 live wildlife markets, among other protections.

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