Scientists have not yet identified the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. What we do know, however, is that the wildlife trade increases the risk of spreading zoonotic diseases. Do we want to reduce the threat of future outbreaks? Then we must take a serious look at the dangers posed by the wildlife trade.
Richard Thomas, head of communications for TRAFFIC, was the speaker in a webinar on April 23. TRAFFIC is a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. Internews and its Earth Journalism Network held the webinar to provide more information on zoonotic diseases. Thomas discussed the role of the wildlife trade and the possible origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I asked Thomas what we can do to combat misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of COVID-19. After all, what has made this pandemic worse is that it has been accompanied by an infodemic and fake news. Thomas, by the way, spearheaded the response to the H5N1 bird flu virus (also called avian influenza) outbreak in 2006 and 2007.
“That’s a good question. I’m glad you mentioned the H5N1 bird flu there because there was basically a major misinformation campaign that was being perpetrated by the commercial poultry industry. Because the natural reservoir for that virus was in wild bird populations, in wild fowl. But it was actually created and generated in the virulent form within the commercial poultry industry. And it was being passed from commercial poultry operations. But every single news report was saying it was wild birds that were doing the transportation. And it was just nonsense when you actually looked into the science of it. You could find connections between all the outbreaks between whether there were commercial poultry operations taking place.
Bats and coronaviruses
“Now, I don’t believe there’s anything quite as cynical, I guess you could say, taking place with COVID-19, trying to cover up where and when it came from. I think it is genuinely unknown at this stage. But what I would encourage is that as journalists you dig as deep as you can to try and find out if there are any cover-ups going on. But I would also encourage everybody to be absolutely open and transparent about what they do know because it’s obviously in everybody’s interest that something like this never happens again. And to try and ensure that we need to understand precisely what its origins were,” Thomas said.
While the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not been identified, Thomas said that what we do know is that bats are the “natural reservoirs” for coronaviruses.
Bats are considered to be the origin of the 2002–2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic. They are also thought to be the origin of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
The point is that these are all zoonotic diseases, which animals transmit to humans. SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2 all belong to the same family of coronaviruses. So with bats being the natural reservoir for coronaviruses, we can expect more future outbreaks if we don’t limit or end the trade of bats and other wildlife.
Threat of future outbreaks
The bat trade actually happens mostly in Southeast Asia. Some Southeast Asian countries consider fruit bats a delicacy. In China, they mainly use bats as components in traditional Chinese medicine.
Thomas discussed how the use of bats in traditional Chinese medicine is a cause for concern because of the potential spread of zoonotic diseases. In particular, they use the feces of the greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) to cure eye conditions.
Meanwhile, they dry the bat’s body parts and add it to wine, or grind it into a powder for oral intake as a means to “detoxify” the body. Imagine what would happen if these bats are infected with a coronavirus.
As Thomas pointed out in his presentation, wildlife trade has two sides. On the one hand, you have illegal trade and poaching. These are clear threats to conservation, sustainable development, and national security.
On the other hand, however, legal wildlife trade can offer essential revenue and development opportunities for countries and local communities.
Still, I believe the risks should convince countries to limit or end the wildlife trade. We don’t know when the next pandemic will arrive, or how severe it will be. But we do know that the next outbreak is just around the corner. And the more humans come into contact with wild animals, the greater the risk.
We already know where the next coronavirus will come from. It’s just a question of when.