Coronavirus, Wet Markets & the Wildlife Trade

In April 2020, Blood Lions hosted a discussion on Twitter regarding coronavirus, wet markets and the wildlife trade and how these fit into the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Simon Morgan of Wildlife ACT, provided scientific-based answers to the questions asked below.

Coronavirus, Wet Markets & the Wildlife Trade

Image courtesy of Blood Lions

Q: How did the Covid-19 virus originate?

We still do not know the direct pathway, but it undoubtably originated in the Horseshoe bat, with the most current scientific analysis from Boni et al. stating “While an intermediate host responsible for the zoonotic event cannot be ruled out, the relevant evolution for spillover to humans very likely occurred in horseshoe bats.”

There has been a great focus on the Sunda (Malayan) Pangolin being that intermediary, with Lam et al. genomic analysis showing “that Malayan pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses” and further suggested that they “should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission.”

A further, more in-depth look at the structure of the virus by Qiu et al. however showed that a broader number of animals would qualify as intermediaries including the “pangolin, cat, cow, buffalo, goat, sheep and pigeon…, indicating potential interspecies transmission of the virus from bats to these animals and among these animals.” It is important that people understand that many of these wet markets house more than just wildlife, and that often livestock are bought in from nearby where they are kept in unhealthy conditions alongside wild animals, with slaughtering happening out in the open and fresh meat for sale exposed to live animals nearby. This makes a perfect haven for virus development, interspecies transmission and finally exposure to humans.

The great educational video by below explains how people in China are themselves victims of conditions that led to increased use of wildlife in their markets and highlights some western misconceptions. In fact, the majority of people in China do not eat wildlife, and it is not so steeped in traditions than people think. Rather it is the rich and powerful – a small minority of the total population.

Q: Is it possible that Covid-19 originated from a lab and was man made?

There are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there, and who really knows, but a detailed and peer reviewed study done by Andersen et al  in Nature show that Covid-19 does not meet the criteria that you would expect from a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus, but that it seems to have developed via natural selection in an animal host before transfer to humans or in humans following transfer from an animal.

Q: The media uses both the terms ‘wet markets’ and wildlife markets. What is the difference?

A wet market is where a high variety of wildlife are displayed in open cages and are selected by customers directly, following which they are slaughtered on site. Bringing together this high density and  unusual mix of species, both alive and freshly slaughtered radically increases the odds of zoonotic viruses coming into contact with humans.

Q: Were there any early warning signs on this COVID-19 virus or other Coronaviruses? In other words, could this pandemic have been prevented?

Yes. The ‘writing was on the wall’ for a pandemic, with experiences from MERS-CoV (from dromedary camels) and SARS-CoV (probably from civets). The new strain COVID-19 should not have taken us by such surprise. If not prevented, we could at least have been better prepared. Bill Gates was alerting us to this possibility more than 5 years ago, as shown in the short video.

Q: What can national governments take away from the current Covid-19 pandemic to avoid similar future health and economic crises?

Governments need to acknowledge the risk of such viruses and better understand how they can detect and respond to them more effectively – alleviating such social and economic disruptions.

In a joint letter we signed, as members of the Lion Coalition, we wrote to WHO said: “Governments need to address the potential risks to human health from the trade in wildlife, including collection from the wild, ranching, farming, transport and trade through physical or online markets and act to close down or limit such trade in order to mitigate risks.”

The dilemma is if they ban the wildlife trade outright and don’t provide effective enforcement coupled with demand reduction campaigns, there is the risk of pushing the trade of live animal sales for consumption largely underground, where dangerous conditions for zoonotic transmission could potentially become even worse. Any restrictions or bans in the trade must be ENFORCED effectively and coupled with demand reduction and awareness campaigns around the health risks associated with these behaviors.

Image courtesy of Blood Lions

Q: What can the public do to avoid future zoonotic viral outbreaks?

Be AWARE of wildlife trade that is happening around you and how you or your peers might be perpetuating the exploitation of wildlife, even in a small way. Ask questions about the trade in exotic wildlife pets and where wildlife you interact with is destined to end up – on someone’s plate?

Take an active stance against the trade of wildlife and educate yourself and then your peers on the impacts of the illegal wildlife trade both locally and globally – from an environmental and human health perspective. From a business perspective use your existing relationships with business partners in wildlife end-user markets to call on them to be reduce the consumption and gifting of wildlife products. For the current situation, follow the guidelines and lockdowns that your government implements; wear a mask when you go out, wash your hands regularly and practice social distancing.

Dr Simon Morgan. Wildlife ACT Trustee