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Stopping the wildlife trade is a key to controlling coronaviruses

Posted By on April 21, 2020 @ 11:16

The history of coronaviruses is littered with environmental degradation, superstition, rampant illegal trading in wildlife, and complacency.

Earlier this century, a global panic was triggered by one such virus, SARS, and there were what look in hindsight like half-hearted attempts to develop a vaccine. Some formulations worked in animal tests but were shelved when they failed to produce [1] the right antibodies in people. That research faded away when the world mistakenly believed the SARS threat had passed.

The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, has shown the modern medical world to be worryingly on the back foot, while foolish old-world superstitions persist about the medicinal power of wild animal parts from the most endangered and most trafficked [2] species. This illegal industry is backed by serious and organised crime.

Animal-borne infectious diseases such as those caused by coronaviruses are an increasing threat to global health and security. More than 60% of 335 new diseases [3] that emerged between 1960 and 2004 were zoonotic. Increasingly, these diseases are linked to [4] habitat destruction and ecosystem disruption, which come from urbanisation, deforestation, logging, mining and rapidly increasing human populations.

The global illegal trade in wild animal products helps fuel epidemics, often in countries in which ‘wet’ markets operate. There, live animals and fish, often called ‘bushmeat’, are bought and sold. Interpol and the non-governmental organisation TRAFFIC say [5] this trade has long been linked to gun and drug crime and illegal deforestation and mining.

Weak international laws make it difficult for NGOs like TRAFFIC to track and prosecute the criminal gangs behind the wildlife trade. Although the wet markets in China, including the one in Wuhan, were officially shut down in the initial stages of the outbreak, many have since reopened [6].

China also instituted a ban on the sale of wild animals for human consumption, which remains in place. But wildlife experts believe the trade has gone deeper underground and animals are now being kept in even worse conditions. That allows viruses to cross to new species. In Gabon, traders are said to be keeping pangolins hidden [7], though they are still selling them.

Unless the international wildlife trade is stopped, new coronaviruses will pose a threat to human communities. Many nations don’t even have laws making the importation of banned wildlife and products illegal. Where legislation does exist, penalties can be inconsistent.

Coronaviruses are known to be widespread in bats, and in March 2019 China was identified [8] by virologists from Wuhan as a country at particular risk of a SARS- or MERS-type epidemic.

SARS is believed to have crossed from bats to people via civets, while MERS made the transition via camels. A recent paper [9] in the journal Current Biology confirmed that pangolins are the most likely intermediate species in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from bats to humans.

Our new world of zoonotic diseases requires much more than vaccines. Governments are increasingly reluctant to police environmental and wildlife laws. Those that allow environmental protections to be overridden or ignored [10] include Australia, Brazil and China.

Weak environmental protection laws in Western countries reflect how little global leaders think or care about the cause-and-effect linkages between environmental stress and the health of human populations. The costs of not caring have not yet sunk in.

Without control of both the illegal wildlife trade and more general environmental destruction, development of antivirals and vaccines will fall short. Over time, we should expect new global zoonotic diseases far worse that Covid-19 to emerge. Taking environmental and animal crimes seriously will give better insight into how these viruses spread into human populations.

The Coalition for Epidemic and Preparedness Innovation [11] is a global alliance that finances and coordinates the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. A coalition of scientists that includes researchers from the University of Queensland and the CSIRO are working on producing a vaccine against Covid-19 vaccine; pre-clinical trials have started for two potential candidate.

But vaccine development is slow and fraught with issues of safety and the difficulties of mass production and distribution. It’s not known yet whether the vaccines being trialled will produce effective antibodies in people. The world will need to keep managing Covid-19 without a vaccine for many months to come.

The Covid-19 crisis is demonstrating that protecting nature and wildlife is not a luxury but a necessity if we are to save lives, livelihoods and economies. Added challenges come from the fact that wild animals are now increasingly ‘farmed’ alongside poultry and pigs.

Future epidemics will include varieties of influenza, which can spread to humans from chickens and pigs, as happened with H1N1 and H5N1. Farming practices need serious scrutiny at the global level.

We have only just entered this new era of viruses and our current medical technologies are woefully inadequate to treat us in this new world. Many experts still operate in silos and there’s been far too little international cooperation among specialists such as epidemiologists and virologists.

Hopefully, the scale of the destruction wrought by this latest coronavirus will force the changes the world needs.



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URLs in this post:

[1] failed to produce: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3371787/

[2] most endangered and most trafficked: https://www.iucn.org/news/species/201707/experts-convene-save-one-world%E2%80%99s-most-trafficked-mammals

[3] 60% of 335 new diseases: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/destroyed-habitat-creates-the-perfect-conditions-for-coronavirus-to-emerge/

[4] are linked to: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/58/3/393/4745724

[5] say: https://www.traffic.org/about-us/illegal-wildlife-trade/

[6] have since reopened: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/4/15/21219222/coronavirus-china-ban-wet-markets-reopening

[7] keeping pangolins hidden: https://www.france24.com/en/20200316-pangolin-sales-plunge-in-gabon-over-coronavirus-fears

[8] identified: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6466186/

[9] recent paper: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdfExtended/S0960-9822(20)30360-2

[10] overridden or ignored: https://theconversation.com/why-arent-australias-environment-laws-preventing-widespread-land-clearing-92924

[11] Coalition for Epidemic and Preparedness Innovation: http://www.cepi.net

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