As of 29th February 2019, COVID-2019 has stricken over 85,400 people in a matter of 2-3 months, resulting in the deaths of over 2,830. These numbers should be put into perspective against annual influenza, which according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) causes an estimated 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths worldwide.
However, a level of heightened concern has rippled across the world due to the novel nature of COVID-19, the ease with which the virus seems to spread and the many questions that still need to be answered regarding transmission, final mortality rates and the overall impact of the virus, globally – not just on human health but on the world economy.
A key issue that has been at the forefront of the outbreak and global discourse, is the role of the wild animal trade as a possible source of the virus.
In fact, the transmission of deadly viruses from the wild animal trade is not new (Table 1) and yet to date there has been little concerted effort to curb this trade, despite past warnings of virus outbreaks.1 Rather, the legal and illegal wildlife trade has in the past decade reached unprecedented levels, such that wildlife crime is now considered one of the 4th most valued illicit activities behind drugs, weapons and human trafficking.
Table 1 Examples of Recent Human Infections Associated with the Animal Trade
|Name||Year emerged/ made headlines||Recorded Cases||Deaths||Fatality rate||Human to human transmission||Animal||Countries affected||Source|
|Avian Flu: H5N1|
Discovered in 1997
|Reemerged in 2003||861 (2003-2020)||455||60%||Rare but possible||Wild birds /poultry||17||WHO|
|Avian Flu: H7N9||Emerged 2013 in China||1568 (March 2012-Sept 2018)||615||39%||Rare but possible||Wild birds/ poultry||China||WHO|
|Swine Flu: A(H1N1||2009 – 2010 Emerged in the USA Declared a global pandemic||USA 60 million||USA 12,469 |
|SARS-CoV||Emerged Nov 2002– July 2003 in China||8439||812||10%||Yes||masked palm civet, horseshoe bat||30||WHO|
|COVID-19||Emerged Dec 2019 in China - ongoing||75,403|
(Dec 2019- Feb 29 2020)
Discovered in 1976
|2014-2016 outbreak||>28,600||>11,325||50% (av)|
Range from 25% to 90%
|Yes||fruit bats, porcupines and non-human primates||Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone||CDC|
|August 2018 outbreak – ongoing||3431|
(as of 9/2/20)
(as of 10/2/20)
|HIV/AIDS ||June 1981||75 million, 37.9 million living with HIV/AIDS in 2018||32 million||42%||Yes||Chimpanzees||Global||WHO|
|Monkey Pox||Emerged in 1970 in DRC||>360, plus DRC has reported 1000/year since 2005 |
(1970 to 2018)
15-20% in children
|Limited||Rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian poached rats, dormice, different species of monkeys||11||WHO|
As affluence has increased, all manner of wild animals are commonly found as key ingredients in luxury dishes and traditional medicines, especially in Asia, despite sound evidence of any benefit. According to recent commentary in the Lancet2:
The obsession with meat and products from wild animals may originate from the philosophy of medicine food homology.3
Many Chinese people mistakenly extend the scope of the homology and simply think that one is made of the supplements they eat. For instance, kidney and penis of deer or tiger are believed to have aphrodisiac effect, and brain of fish or monkey are supposed to make people brighter.
Another false belief …. is that meat and products from wild animals have certain therapeutic effects. For example, Chinese pangolin meat is believed to help relieve rheumatism, its blood is believed to promote blood circulation and remove meridian obstruction, and its bile is believed to eliminate so-called liver fire and improve eyesight.
The pangolin has the unfortunate accolade of not only being the most trafficked mammal in the world, with more than a million animals estimated to have been poached between 2000 and 20164 and all 8 species threatened with extinction– but importantly is under suspicion as a COVID-19 host. Although research is ongoing, viruses isolated from the pangolin have been found to be 99% similar to that of the current circulating virus5.
Whether the pangolin is the source of COVID-19 has yet to be confirmed. A research paper is due shortly from scientists at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou. Nevertheless, coronaviruses are known to be widespread in multiple animal species including bats, reptiles, birds, monkeys and pigs and are known in cases to transfer to humans6 with relative ease.
The fairly recent SARs epidemic7 thought to be caused by a coronavirus found in the horseshoe bat and hosted in the masked palm civet8, is frequently cited and compared to the current COVID-19 outbreak, with some researchers calling the latter SARS-CoV-2. At this stage of the COVID-19 outbreak, SARS appears to have been a more deadly but less transmissible and easier to contain virus. The more pessimistic of us might then question – what if a virus emerged from the wild animal trade that is as deadly as SARS, Ebola or H5N1 and as transmissible as COVID-2019?
Can we really take that risk in the highly interconnected world that we now live in?
As China’s top legislature – the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), adopts a decision to completely ban the consumption of wild animals and the associated trade,in light of COVID-20199, the world should be reminded that transference of animal viruses is not just a China problem. Now is the time to consider whether the wild animal trade globally should be banned once and for all.
Human health impacts aside, the worlds’ biodiversity is under enormous pressure. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history:
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” IPBES Chair Robert Watson, 2019
A wild animal trade ban may not only save hundreds of thousands, if not millions of human lives looking forward, it may also go a long way to preserving the very ecosystems on which humanity depends.
 WHO (2015). Warning signals from the volatile world of influenza viruses. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/influenza/publications/warningsignals201502/en/ [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].
 Li, J., Li, J., Xie, X., Cai, X., Huang, J., Tian, X. and Zhu, H. (2020). Game consumption and the 2019 novel coronavirus. The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
 Ibid – “Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classics) from the Hang dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) states [of things] eaten when hungry is food, eaten when ill is medicine and is considered an early reflection of the homology.”
 IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group (2016). The Status, Trade and Conservation of Pangolins (Manis spp.). Seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties Johannesburg (South Africa), 24 September – 5 October 2016. [online] Available at: https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/InfDocs/E-CoP17-Inf-59.pdf [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].
 Xinhua (2020). Pangolins a potential intermediate host of novel coronavirus: study. [online] Xinhuanet.com. Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-02/07/c_138763566.htm [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].
 Cyranoski, D. (2020). Did pangolins spread the China coronavirus to people? [online] Nature.com. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00364-2 [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].
 According to reports in the Lancet – The genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is 82% similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and a both belong to the β-genus of the coronavirus family. Yeo, C., Kaushal, S. and Yeo, D. (2020). Enteric involvement of coronaviruses: is faecal–oral transmission of SARS-CoV-2 possible? The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
 Cyranoski, D. (2017). Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus — and suggests new outbreak could occur. [online] Nature.com. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07766-9 [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].
 China’s legislature adopts decision on banning illegal trade, consumption of wildlife. Available at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-02/24/c_138814608.htm