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Wildlife Markets and the Coronavirus

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Wildlife Markets

Competing theories about the origin of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) remain inconclusive. While there are several plausible hypotheses, but none have been proven definitively. Initially, scientists linked the virus to the sale of wild animals for human consumption in wildlife markets and/or wildlife farms in China. Over time, however, new information has raised the possibility that the virus leaked from a laboratory. In a statement in October 2021, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, noted that, “To date, the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic has not been identified, despite intensive efforts to do so.”

While the origin of COVID-19 may not be definitively known, 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 possible. Several other zoonotic diseases and outbreaks, for example, 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 livestock, like pigs, chickens, and seafood, which is separate from the area where wildlife are sold. A more precise definition of “wet markets” is 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 only about 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 cramped and inhumane conditions, not unlike in factory farms in the U.S. Cages are often stacked on top of each other, for example, facilitating easy exchange of bodily fluids. These living conditions also subject the animals to high levels of stress and, as with people, when animals are stressed they are more likely to get sick. Given the confined spaces they are kept in, including among different species, illnesses among the animals spread readily. Additionally, animals are slaughtered and sold on-site, which creates many opportunities for viruses to jump from animals to people. Further, once a pathogen has spilled over from nonhuman animals to humans, it can then subsequently be passed back to animals, a process called spillback. Spillback is particularly dangerous, as it gives the pathogen even more time to evolve into a more dangerous and/or more transmissible disease.

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 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 the 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 amount—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 both the enforcement of existing laws on the global trade, transport, and consumption of wildlife and also the comprehensive reform of some industries in their entirety. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a clear example of how our treatment of animals can directly impact our own health and well-being.

What are lawmakers doing to address this issue?

Yes, a number of leaders are taking action. China announced a ban on buying and selling wild animals for food. In April 2020, 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.

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 a taskforce to examine public health risks and animal welfare concerns. Though ultimately unsuccessful, California’s SB 1175 would have 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.

In January 2021, U.S. Congressional Representative Mike Quigley introduced the Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2021, which would establish measures to address global public health risks posed by wildlife markets. Two-thirds of the Massachusetts delegation has cosponsored this bill (Rep. Lynch, Rep. McGovern, Rep. Pressley, Rep. Keating, Rep. Trahan, and Rep. Auchincloss).

In 2022, the House of Representatives and the Senate has now passed the COMPETES Act, which includes an amendment that would ban the farming of mink for their fur. 

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