Conservation news

How to prevent the next COVID-19? Conservationists weigh in

As the death toll and economic cost of the COVID-19 crisis mounts, calls are mounting to ban the trade in wild animals for human consumption, believed to have sparked the pandemic. It is born out of a pressing concern: How to prevent another pandemic like COVID-19? The novel coronavirus has infected more than 2 million people, claimed more than 140,000 lives, and could deal a $9 trillion blow to the global economy in just the next two years.

On April 15, Chris Walzer, head of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wildlife health program, called for an immediate and permanent ban on the commercial trade of wildlife for human consumption, at a briefing of the U.S. Congress’s International Conservation Caucus. While the meeting focused on how the U.S. can take a leadership role in preventing future outbreaks, there is growing recognition that international agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) will be indispensable for averting the next pandemic. Yet just a day earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Washington would suspend funding for the WHO over what he called its mishandling of the outbreak.

The roadmap for preventing another pandemic remains hazy, but there is consensus that the world cannot afford another COVID-19. Humans have always been at risk from zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans, but the threat has never appeared more menacing. Mammals and birds harbor an estimated 1.5 million viruses. Of these, about 700,000 can endanger human health. Today, zoonotic diseases account for around 60% of all emerging infectious disease, and a majority of these originate in wild animals. Scientists have warned that the rate of emergence of these diseases is increasing.

More than 200 animal welfare organizations appealed to the WHO this month to lean on governments to permanently shut down markets that sell live wild animals and to ban the use of wildlife in traditional medicine. However, a global ban on wildlife markets is not on the cards, and no international agency has the authority to enforce such a ban.

No individual measure, including a blanket ban on all ‘wet markets,’ should be portrayed as a panacea. A single-issue focus fails to take into account the bigger picture,” said Cristina Romanelli, the interagency liaison for the WHO’s joint work program on biodiversity and health with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Romanelli said what was needed was to address the “full range of common drivers of biodiversity loss and disease emergence,” and added that any unintended consequences of individual measures would have to be carefully considered.

Not just bats and pangolins

Bats in the Agop Batu Tulug cave complex in Malaysia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

As reports emerged that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, originated in bats, some Beijing residents started to call the police on the winged mammals. Bats are reservoir species for several viruses because their superior immune system allows them to carry viruses that can cause disease in other species, including humans, without falling sick themselves. “A lot of the popular discourse is inadvertently or deliberately creating this fear of wildlife and nature. It has created a narrative of fear rather than trying to look at the root causes,” Romanelli said.

The petition to close wild animal markets, however, is more than a knee-jerk reaction. The first cluster of COVID-19 cases was associated with a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have latched onto human hosts. At commercial markets where different kinds of animals are bought and sold on a large scale, there is a high risk of spillover. Animals, which in the wild would never come in contact with humans or each other, are kept in congested and often unsanitary conditions, creating “super interfaces.”

“Wet markets, wildlife trade, and consumption that pose a high risk to human health should be banned immediately,” John E. Scanlon, former secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), said at the congressional caucus briefing. He said the challenge will be defining what qualifies as “high risk.”

As the epidemic spread, Chinese authorities responded by instituting a temporary ban that outlawed wild animal consumption. China is considering making the ban permanent by amending its wildlife laws. The country is no stranger to outbreaks of novel zoonotic diseases. In 2002-03, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a disease caused by another coronavirus (SARS-CoV), entered human populations from bats via Asian palm civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). A wildlife trade ban was announced at the time, but was later lifted. The death toll from COVID-19 is already over 100 times that from SARS. This time, conservationists are hoping the ban will stick.

Experts, however, argue that a narrow focus on wildlife markets may not be the answer. “A total ban on the consumption of terrestrial wildlife alone is not enough to effectively protect public health from wildlife-associated diseases,” an article about the Chinese ban in the journal Science argued. Trade in live animals for consumption is one aspect of the wildlife trade. Products of animal origin like pangolin scales, snake bile and even bat feces are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Currently, they fall outside the scope of the ban. Animal welfare NGOs have called the use of wildlife parts in traditional medicine “unnecessary and indefensible.” The WCS is also pushing for greater scrutiny of pet markets that involve human contact with live animals.

Beyond illegal trade

The inside of a transport truck after cows were unloaded in Toronto, Canada. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals.

Current evidence suggests the new coronavirus was transmitted to humans through an intermediate species like pangolins. Despite all eight pangolin species being protected, these scaly anteaters are the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Though China is the largest market for illegal wildlife products, it is not the only one. Besides, wildlife trafficking networks span countries and continents. A large chunk of pangolin scales used in traditional medicine in China are imported from Africa and Asia, which points to widespread illegal poaching of these animals in their home countries.

While poor enforcement of illegal wildlife trade laws don’t help, a limited focus on species that face existential threats and thus enjoy protection under wildlife laws may not fully address public health concerns. The closest relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is found in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophidae spp.). Most of these bats are not threatened species. Neither is the Asian palm civet, the intermediary host of the SARS virus.

Nor are the Chinese the only consumers of wild animals. Ebola, one of the deadliest viral diseases known to humankind, originated in West Africa. It is believed to have entered human populations through contact with an infected bat or a non-human primate like an ape or monkey. “Wet markets exist not only in Asia but also in Africa and Latin America, and depending on how they are defined, they are found worldwide,” Scanlon said. “Trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, affects all countries.” Conditions that allow viruses to jump from wildlife to humans can exist in poorly regulated legal trade as well.

Though many countries are still in crisis control mode, some have shown a greater willingness to address the larger problem. “There will be a post-pandemic world. By then, at the latest, we need to have understood the causes of this crisis, in order to better prevent a similar scenario in the future,” Germany’s environment minister, Svenja Schulze, said in a statement. “Science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks, including pandemics more likely. This indicates that the destruction of nature is the underlying crisis behind the coronavirus crisis.”

The mutilation of forests, manipulations of waterways, and haphazard development are disrupting ecosystems and eroding the boundaries between wild and human communities at an unprecedented scale. Climate change has only made it worse. There are fears that the melting of glaciers could unleash previously unknown viruses that have remained locked up in their icy prisons for thousands of years.

Human incursions into undisturbed landscapes have amplified exposure to previously unknown pathogens, according to research that looks at how changing land-use patterns increased contact between people and non-human primates in Africa. Soaring populations, encroachment on forests, and bushmeat consumption played a part in the 2014 Ebola outbreak that grew to epidemic proportions.

“The story we tell about pandemics casts us as victims of nature. It’s the other way around,” the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said in a release. “Let us stress that it was the actions of people that created the environment in which this transmission was possible.”

One Health

A member of an indigenous community holding eggs of a bird belonging to the tinamou order, in Colombia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

The SARS outbreak of 2002-03, the “first global public health emergency of the 21st century,” according to the WHO, led to the revision of International Health Standards, which guide the WHO and member states in preparing for and responding to disease outbreaks. Conservationists say they hope the COVID-19 crisis will trigger actions that have public health benefits and also stifle the illegal trade in wildlife and stem environmental damage. In doing so, they are increasingly turning to the principle of One Health, the idea that the well-being of humans is inextricably linked to the health of the planet.

“It is going to be very difficult on a global level to reach some kind of consensus of course, but the core values and understanding of the One Health approach and the need for it are clearly outlined, it’s really a question of how to act on it,” Walzer of WCS said. Unilateral decisions are unlikely to yield results. Schulze, the German environment minister, called on the IPBES, an intergovernmental think tank formed in 2012, to gather knowledge and share it with policymakers across the world. There are concerns that poorly conceived measures could impinge on the rights of indigenous peoples and communities, especially those who are dependent on bushmeat to sustain themselves and don’t have access to alternatives.

“I think that there are a whole host of social, economic and cultural factors that need to be taken into account,” Romanelli said. “And this requires a much broader dialogue and awareness-raising and work with local communities who would be very directly affected by a global ban.”

What is also unclear is how consensus would be reached and such actions implemented. There does not exist an international agency that works solely to promote the One Health framework. The Food and Agriculture Organization, World Organisation for Animal Health, and the WHO are part of an alliance that addresses health risks that arise from animal-human interactions. Animal welfare NGOs who sent the letter to the WHO noted that it was within the agency’s mandate to take the precautionary first steps. “Any further restrictions will have to be enforced across all countries. There is at present no international legal agreement that enables wildlife markets, trade or consumption to be banned on public health grounds,” Scanlon said.

Critics of the Trump have emphasised that the middle of a pandemic is not the time to defund the international health agency; to prevent another COVID-19 might require more cooperation, not less.  “These are challenging global, interconnected issues and a collective effort is needed to address them,” Scanlon said. “If we do not act boldly now to institutionalize changes to laws, funding and programs, I fear we might find ourselves in the same place in the not-so-distant future.”

(Banner Image: A screenshot of a map showing the spread of COVID-19 on April 17, 2020, created by the Johns Hopkins University.)

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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