The coronavirus is found in bats. How did it get to us? – analysis
The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) has engulfed the world in just a few weeks, sending billions to close. Amid the confusion and fright, “patient zero” dates back to a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. Preliminary studies indicate that the bat coronavirus infected humans, via a wild animal, the Malaysian pangolins. The genomic similarity between the Pangolin coronavirus and the Sars-CoV-2 (Covid-19 virus) is what has led to this assumption.
Bats, pangolins, and humans are not cohabitants, which acts as a “species barrier”, preventing the virus naturally found in bats from jumping into other species. But environmental crimes such as poaching and wildlife consumption cause the species barrier to be broken. The presence of Malaysian pangolins (natural forest dwellers in Southeast Asia) in the Chinese meat market strongly points to wildlife trafficking and smuggling. Malaysian pangolins are hunted for their skin, scales, meat and for ingredients in oriental medicine. All pangolin species are included in Appendix I of Cites, which means that their international trade is prohibited.
According to the Illicit Trade Report of the World Customs Organization, in 2018, the customs administrations of 47 countries reported 2,727 seizures of flora and fauna, which is equivalent to 59,150 pieces and 3.60,495 kg of various species of flora and fauna. Being rich in biodiversity, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and South America are the most vulnerable to crime and wildlife trafficking. In most cases, the destination is still China. Wild animals and products such as rhino horns, ivory, live pangolins and their scales, turtles and tortoises, snakes and their skins, mongooses, seahorses, sea cucumbers, crocodile skins, and porcupines are trafficked in substantial quantities.
Several wet and dry Wuhan-type markets are operational in China, Thailand and Vietnam that are in demand for exotic wildlife items. In China alone, domestic wildlife farming is evaluated as a multi-billion dollar industry. The wealthy and the privileged are the main consumers of wildlife products, mainly due to the superstitions surrounding traditional Chinese medicine and the false pride associated with owning certain wildlife items. Rhino horn, pangolin scales, and tiger bones are used in traditional medicines, aphrodisiac recipes, and body development tonics. Scientific studies fully condemn and refute these beliefs. In contrast, the Chinese wildlife market has seen an alarming increase in demand for rhino horn extract, due to the false belief that it can help treat Covid-19. The breeding of wildlife and the consumption of wild meat in China have historical reasons such as hunger and poverty. Little by little, it became a tradition.
Wet markets sell live meat, fish, and seafood. Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese wet markets are known for selling game meat and numerous other wildlife items. They keep live animals in cages, stacked on top of each other. If the upper cage has bats and those below it have turtles, civets, ducks, porcupines, and pangolins, it can cause their excreta and fluids to mix. Converts all the broth into a natural mixing container, helping the virus to cross the species barrier. Such a congested and stressful circumstance reduces immunity and results in the multiplication of the virus, and the infection and transmission of disease.
When humans kill or dress affected animals, they contract the virus. Within the human body, the virus undergoes a mutation, which can cause a pandemic of the current magnitude. The emergence of Covid-19 and the role of the Wuhan market are still under investigation. However, the outbreak of the Sars pandemic (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 dates back to masked palm civets (Paguma larvata) and raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), which are traded on the Chinese wet market in Shenzhen.
In 2010, Indian customs prevented an attempt to import more than 10,000 red-eared turtles from China. Later, it was discovered that, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature classification, seized turtles were considered one of the most invasive species on earth. Its potential to outnumber the native turtle population and the microbial load it would have brought provide insight into the seriousness of the crime.
A crazy pet culture poses another threat to the environment and global health. Reptiles, turtles, wild lizards, and other exotic species are considered by many to be new age pets. Close contact with such pets offers an opportunity for a virus like Covid-19 to cross species barriers and infect humans. Unless strictly prohibited, the illicit wildlife trade and pet culture of the new era have the potential to become another pandemic bomb.
Anees Cherkunnath is an IRS officer posted to Indian Customs. He has a doctorate in veterinary science.
The opinions expressed are personal.