GLOBAL THREAT

Coronavirus: Ban all wildlife trade to stop deadly disease

Decreasing contact between wildlife, people most practical and cost-effective approach.

In Summary
  • In the long term we need to tackle the consumer demand for wildlife and their body parts. 
  • If they are to be fully effective these bans should be global and underpinned by efforts to reduce demand.
A worker in a protective suit is seen at the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on January 10, 2020. The seafood market is linked to the outbreak of the pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus, but some patients diagnosed with the new coronavirus deny exposure to this market.
A worker in a protective suit is seen at the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on January 10, 2020. The seafood market is linked to the outbreak of the pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus, but some patients diagnosed with the new coronavirus deny exposure to this market.
Image: REUTERS

In an unprecedented and rapid response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, China has taken the commendable and courageous decision to impose a temporary nationwide ban on all wildlife trade. With an estimated 70 per cent of all emerging diseases being of wild animal origin, there is no denying that the growing global trade in wildlife (whether it is legal or illegal) has been specifically cited as a disease transmission mechanism of growing global concern in recent decades.

After all, the combination of terrible animal suffering and lack of proper biosecurity measures at a typical “wet market” provide the perfect opportunity for pathogens, like viruses, to mutate and spread. Here, animals with weakened immunities, due to the stress and trauma from wild capture or intensive captive breeding, left to sit in their own urine and waste are an all too common sight. This, combined with close human contact can create a recipe for disaster.

In modern times the threat has grown to global proportions, as people capture wild animals from their natural habitats and trade them dead or alive to different parts of the world. There are a complex range of factors that influence a country’s risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases from wild animals, and its ability to deal with the consequences.

For example, based on the number of animals traded, our recent review of the CITES Trade Database identified a number of countries that warrant attention. In particular China, is the largest exporter of live mammals with 98,979 animals representing 58.7 per cent of all global trade listed on this international treaty between 2011 and 2016 alone.

A novel deadly disease such as coronavirus can emerge from one single animal, and with wildlife markets such as the one in Wuhan found all over the world, the potential for this to keep occurring is a very real threat.

However, this isn’t just about numbers, a novel deadly disease such as coronavirus can emerge from one single animal, and with wildlife markets such as the one in Wuhan found all over the world, the potential for this to keep occurring is a very real threat.

So what should be done? Rather than simply treating wild animals as “bags of disease” and attempting to eradicate pathogens or cull the wild animals that harbour them, efforts that decrease contact between wild animals and people could prove to be the most practical and cost-effective approach in reducing this global human health threat.

In the long term we need to tackle the consumer demand for wildlife and their body parts. In the short-term, trade bans (like that now imposed by China) have also been proposed as a tool to help reduce the spread of the disease. However, if they are to be fully effective these bans should be global and underpinned by efforts to reduce demand.

China’s national ban on wildlife trade will prevent the terrible suffering endured by millions of wild animals traded for use as exotic pets, traditional medicine and meat. It will also put a stop to the horrific conditions they endure both in transportation and in the markets that serve as such a lethal hotbed of disease.

Whether this ban is made permanent, and if adequate measures will be taken to safeguard the welfare of animals already caught up in wildlife trade, remains to be seen. In the short term, however, it will undoubtedly serve to protect wildlife and people.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the regulation of wildlife trade – from  animal welfare, to conservation and ethics - but the risk posed by pathogens (and of emerging zoonoses), as we can see with the current coronavirus outbreak cannot be under-estimated and must be urgently addressed.

A mother helps her son to put on a face mask at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, in Sepang, Malaysia, February 4, 2020.
A mother helps her son to put on a face mask at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, in Sepang, Malaysia, February 4, 2020.
Image: REUTERS