The ongoing crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, has very quickly reached global proportions. Virtually every country in the world is affected by the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at this point, more than 274 million cases of infection have been reported with almost 5,4 million deaths related to or because of the coronavirus (WHO, 2021). In the United States, more than 50 million people have been infected while almost 800,000 have died. In Germany, infections come close to the 7 million infections mark while more than 108,000 have died (ibid.).
COVID-19 has been identified as a zoonotic disease, which means that the virus has sprung from an animal to a human. The assumed virus’ origin and rapid spread throughout the world has placed the focus of political and media attention to the international trade in wildlife. As a response, already in March 2020. China, the country suspected of being the origin of the current virus, has banned all hunting, trade and consumption of wildlife (CITES, 2020). Vietnam followed suit shortly after (BBC, 2020). Organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) urge governments to shut down so-called ‘high-risk markets’ and trade in ‘high-risk species’, particularly in densely populated areas and for human consumption (WWF, 2020). Others call for more intense efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade.
In this post we consider the link between the international trade in wildlife and the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, the current state of research along with other factual data are presented, based on peer-reviewed studies and official information provided by the WHO.
The state of research on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus
Before we tackle the question at hand, it is imperative to look at the presumed origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. First of all, the type of virus – coronavirus – is not new as it was first observed in 2003 during an outbreak that caused the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Coronaviruses are airborne and can be transmitted through droplets of saliva, similar to the influenza viruses (WHO, Undated). The 2003 SARS outbreak could be traced back to Guangdong Province in China and it quickly spread in around 30 countries, particularly caused by international air travel. Worldwide deaths amounted to approximately 800.
The origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are significantly more difficult to determine. In public discourse, two theories exist: first, the virus is a zoonotic virus that has jumped from bats and/or pangolins to humans. Several virological studies that were released shortly after the outbreak confirm this (e.g. Zhou et al. 2020). Second, the virus has been manufactured and was released – either accidentally or on purpose – from a laboratory into the human population (Maxmen & Mallapaty, 2021) . If the latter were the case, the virus would have to be identified as a biological weapon.
International consensus on the first appearance of SARS-CoV-2 exists in the identification of a market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, that many first infected attended (e.g. BZgA, 2020; Lam et al., 2020; WHO, 2020; NIC, 2021). Subject of disagreement is where exactly the virus comes from and how it was originally transmitted. An original hypothesis was that it was transmitted from bats to humans by selling bat meat on a wet market (a market where raw meats are sold) in Wuhan City. However, since interaction between bats and humans is rather sparse, an intermediate host that has been handled by humans on a much more frequent basis could have jumped the species barrier (WHO, 2020, p. 2).
One ‘candidate’ in this regard is the Malayan pangolin (Manis javanica), which is listed, along with seven other pangolin species, on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and trade in which occurs illegally for medicinal purposes in Asia. As Lam et al. (2020) have shown, many specimens of pangolins showed coronavirus infection. This would consequently allow for the (preliminary) conclusion that illegal trade has contributed to the spread of the virus. After all, pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world (Challender et al., 2014), making it rather easy to blame their trade as a reason for the pandemic. This link, however, to the best of my knowledge, has not been proven.
The laboratory hypothesis has been labelled as rather unlikely in recent studies (e.g. NIC, 2021). First of all, investigations by the WHO and by others have not found any traces of a biologically engineered origin of the virus. The genetic similarity to already known and naturally occurring coronaviruses is too great in order for it to have been engineered. For instance, its genetic set-up – e.g. its characteristic furin cleavage sites – rather provides an evolutionary advantage than being a sign for genetic manipulation. Moreover, the virus does not just affect humans – which would be the primary purpose of a biological weapon – but it spreads uncontrollably, affecting all levels of society. A more probable cause could have been an escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While there has not been any proof of a breach of biosafety regulations due to Chinese reluctance to shed light on this matter, this possibility cannot be swept under the rug. After all, the region around Wuhan is home to numerous known coronaviruses and the institute specialises on them. A sample from an infected bat might have been collected, which could have been – intentionally or accidentally – removed from the institute’s premises. A rapid spread in the 11 million-city of Wuhan would be imminent (Maxmen & Mallapaty, 2021).
There are many unknowns concerning the origins of the virus, indeed. But what does this mean for international wildlife trade?
The COVID-19 pandemic and international wildlife trade
First of all, we need to establish the immediate link between diseases and human-wildlife interaction. The ongoing pandemic is by no means the first disease that has been caused by this interaction: epidemics such as the ebola or the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) epidemics – the latter also caused by a type of coronavirus – are but two examples for this problem.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there are five ways by which viruses or other germs can be transmitted from an animal to a human.
- Direct contact: Coming into contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, or other body fluids of an infected animal. Examples include petting or touching animals, and bites or scratches.
- Indirect contact: Coming into contact with areas where animals live and roam, or objects or surfaces that have been contaminated with germs. Examples include aquarium tank water, pet habitats, chicken coops, barns, plants, and soil, as well as pet food and water dishes.
- Vector-borne: Being bitten by a tick, or an insect like a mosquito or a flea.
- Foodborne: Eating or drinking something unsafe, such as unpasteurised (raw) milk, undercooked meat or eggs, or raw fruits and vegetables that are contaminated with feces from an infected animal. Contaminated food can cause illness in people and animals, including pets.
- Waterborne: Drinking or coming in contact with water that has been contaminated with feces from an infected animal (CDC, Undated).
Particularly with increasing encroachment onto territories that have previously been unused by humans, the likelihood of encountering new germs or viruses is high. As a consequence, humans directly or indirectly come in contact with germs or viruses against which they do not have an immune protection. However, it is also possible that through natural selection, for instance a virus may adapt to its new host(s) by jumping from human to human. This would mean that the first having come into contact with a new virus would carry it on undetected. This, as Andersen et al. (2020, p. 450) have shown, might also have been the case with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Especially with regard to the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), sanitary issues become relevant since this trade occurs outside of governmental regulation which has put in place rules that ensure hygiene and health-related aspects. Through the wrong handling of poached animals, their wrong consumption or unprotected and thereby vector-species-exposed (e.g. through ticks) poaching, it is especially handlers, poachers, market sellers and, in the end, consumers who are mostly exposed to new viruses. In densely populated areas and through the sale on illegal wet-markets, viruses thus have an easy play in quickly expanding their range (Bezerra-Santos et al., 2021).
However, this is not to say that domesticated or farmed animals may not have the same effect. For instance, in 1984 a farmer in the UK noticed a strange behaviour in one of his cows, which shortly after died. Throughout 1985, more of his herd died when in 1986 a new form of bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) was identified as a new disease. More than 10 years after the initial reporting, BSE was linked with a new variant of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which causes significant brain failures in humans. The consumption of BSE-infected beef has been identified to be the origin of vCJD (O’Brien, 2000).
In any case, the interaction between humans and animals has always had the potential to cause diseases of zoonotic origin. Yet, is the international trade in wildlife responsible for the pandemic? CITES is rather silent on the issue of hygiene and health. Instead, on several occasions it merely notes that a living specimen is to be “prepared and shipped as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment” (e.g. CITES, art. III.2(c)).
In their study carried out in 2020, Borsky et al. have shown that it is, however, not only the illegal wildlife trade which carries the potential for zoonotic diseases. By linking the effectiveness of the CITES Appendices (i.e. the reduction of trade in a species once it has been moved from Appendix II to Appendix I) with the findings on zoonotic viruses in terrestrial mammal species by Johnson et al. (2020), a rather interesting picture emerges. While Johnson et al. found that the highest proportion of viruses could be found in rodents (61%), 30% in bats, 23% in primates, 21% in even-toed ungulates and, generally, 18% in carnivores, Borsky et al. demonstrate that a shift from Appendix II to Appendix I decreases the risk of potential zoonotic disease trade by 72%. They also found that trade in species that harbour more viruses responds more immediately to an Appendix uplisting. This translates into a reduction in trade in high-risk species to reduced disease trade by 83% (Borksy et al., 2020).
What do these findings mean?
When reading the above, it might, from a virological perspective, appear logical to significantly reduce the trade in wildlife – also the legal trade. But this would be oversimplified. First of all, the findings do not reflect the probability of the risk of viruses actually leading into a pandemic (or an epidemic). What they only reflect is the fact that wildlife contains viruses that may also be transmitted to humans. Whether or not the traded specimens are handled correctly, whether there are sufficient sanitary and hygienic measures in place and the way by which they are coming in contact with humans is not discussed.
Secondly, trade in wildlife is not a one-way street and the risk of a zoonotic disease must also be gauged against the harm that is done to local communities depending on this wildlife trade and the international environmental governance system. If the legal trade were to be shut down, one of the most influential conservation regimes, CITES, would become obsolete. At the same time, shutting down the legal trade would not have to be permanent and would not have to affect all species equally. As the research by Johnson et al. shows, rodents are in fact those species with the highest percentage of known zoonotic viruses. Depending on a possible impending pandemic, a temporary emergency shut-down of legal trade in specific species could be an option – similar to the emergency lockdowns that many societies have seen as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether this would truly prevent the spread of a virus remains in the realm of speculation, however. After all, it is not the international wildlife trade that is responsible for the current situation, but human international (air) travel.
Also, to get back to the first point concerning local communities: depending on the locale itself, it is imperative that knowledge on the high-risk species and their role for local communities is clearly assessed. In other words, in order to safeguard human right standards, before considering a (temporary) suspension of international wildlife trade, concrete and in-depth socio-economic assessments of wildlife-trading communities are necessary.
Concerning the health implications of the illegal wildlife trade, it is clear that CITES along with INTERPOL and NGOs such as TRAFFIC need to become ever more efficient. The COVID-19 pandemic once again has shown that health and IWT are closely linked. Not only is IWT detrimental to global biodiversity, it also has direct impacts on the human wellbeing on this planet. A concerted effort – irrespective of the ideological divide on conservation/preservation vs. sustainable use – is necessary. Because that is all can agree on: to find the root causes for poaching and IWT and thereby to protect biodiversity and human health.
Outlook and more information
In case of a suspension of the legal international trade in wildlife, it is once again the livelihoods of the poor which are affected first. In the context of CITES, the engagement of poor rural communities was raised in Resolution Conf. 16.6. (Rev. CoP17) (CITES, 2013). The resolution clearly states that “implementation of CITES is better achieved with the engagement of rural communities, especially those which are traditionally dependent on CITES-listed species for their livelihoods” while “poor rural communities may attach economic, social, cultural and ceremonial importance to some CITES-listed species.” In other words, any implementing measure taken by CITES that may have impact on (poor) rural communities should be taken together with them. This would also mean that a (temporary) shut down of legal trade should only be possible when strategies are in place that protect rural communities from negative impacts.
In the end, its the divide between the developed world and the developing world which guides international governance decisions. While a global vaccination programme has been launched with all in all 29 vaccines available in 194 countries (while not every vaccine has been approved in every country) (COVID19 Vaccine Tracker, 2021), there is a significant pitfall as regards vaccine availability and thus vaccine application. As the screenshot below, taken from the WHO website, shows, it is especially the African continent, and therein central African countries, which have administered the total doses available to less than 20% of the population. One of the root causes is that vaccines are not available and, as a consequence, that vaccination strategies cannot be developed.
At the same time, the rate of infection in central African countries is comparably low, as the map of infections per 100,000 inhabitants shows.
A closer look at Kenya even reveals that within one year the rate of antibodies found in the Kenyan population has risen from 4.3% in early 2020 to 48.5% in early 2021 while only 2% of the Kenyan population had been vaccinated by March 2021. Yet, only very few people died or showed significant symptoms (Uyoga et al., 2021). In other words, the rate of infection must have been very high while rather few people actually became sick. Also the German SpiegelOnline reported about this phenomenon (Hoffman, 2021). If decided without rural engagement, shut-down of wildlife trade would therefore once again harm those that have the least to do with the current situation. Instead, the low infection rate and associated deaths related to COVID-19 in African countries should serve as a means to find protection against the virus since antibodies can be developed even without vaccines.
Where does this leave us? The above is meant to provide some food for thought and is certainly not a conclusive opinion. Instead, it shows how difficult development of a clear-cut strategy for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic is. While there is certainly a risk associated with international wildlife trade – particularly the illegal trade – this tells nothing about the national trade. After all, in central Africa, significant national wildlife trade and consumption is ongoing but the rate of infection remains rather low. The question is: Why? It is here where research should start.
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