Did the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 really come from wild animals?
We have every reason to believe so, yes. Scientists believe this new form of coronavirus originated from a seafood market in Wuhan where various species of wild animals were sold and butchered illegally. Experts from China’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) successfully isolated the virus from samples taken from the market.
Live animal markets where a broad variety of domestic and wildlife species are sold for consumption are perfect breeding grounds for diseases. Animals sold at these markets are often kept in small cages stacked on top of each other - the stress of captivity weakens their immune systems making it easier for viruses to spread from species to species. With the SARS epidemic in 2003, the virus jumped from bats to civet cats as an intermediary host, before being transmitted to humans. Scientists in China have deduced that this new type of coronavirus 'jumped' from bats to another intermediary species and ultimately to humans as well.
Diseases that are animal-borne are ‘zoonotic diseases’. There are many examples of modern zoonotic diseases that spread from wild animals to humans. HIV/aids is thought to have originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, hunted and butchered for human consumption. The reservoir for Ebola is within African bats, considered a delicacy in parts of Africa. Hence, the spread of zoonotic pathogens is a worldwide problem. New diseases coming from wild animals can erupt in all parts of the world as long as humans keep hunting, trading and butchering wild animals.
Global wildlife crime and COVID-19
What is IFAW doing to help mitigate the chances of another pandemic outbreak like COVID-19?
We are taking the same approach we use to fight global wildlife crime along every link in the trade chain. Breaking the petri dish that grows epidemics needs strong laws, global coordination, vigorous enforcement and consumer behaviour change to reduce demand for wildlife parts and products.
- We urge governments around the world to develop clear legislation that prohibits the commercial trade of wildlife, based on zoonotic risks for humans and the ecological value of wildlife in the wild.
- We support wildlife law enforcement officials and judiciary institutions in enforcing such legislations and prosecuting wildlife crime offenders. We also proactively provide tailored trainings and mentorship programmes for law enforcers as well as expert workshops for judiciary experts.
- We conduct social behaviour change campaigns to reduce consumer demand for wildlife. Currently we’re displaying billboards at the Beijing International Airport terminals with a public service announcement which reads Eating Wildlife is a Crime. We’ve activated a joint campaign with MeiTuan, one of China’s largest food delivery/shopping apps with 35 million active users. In only two days, we saw more than 7,500 ‘wildlife meat’ businesses and restaurants removed and over 17,000 restaurants and businesses pledged and joined the call to reject the sale of wildlife products.
- IFAW works with the private sector globally to remove live animals and wildlife products from online marketplaces. In China, for example, we work directly with web giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent who have all adopted a strict zero tolerance policy against wildlife trade. In fact, Alibaba banned the trade of parts and products from elephants, tigers, rhinos, bears, pangolins, turtles and sharks more than a decade ago. Alibaba has now expanded the ban to cover more than one million wildlife species. This was a crucial step in our fight to end the trade of endangered species and wildlife on online marketplaces.
- Outside of China, we’re also working within countries with wildlife consumer markets to strengthen legislation and enforcement. The spread of zoonotic diseases is not a Chinese problem only. It’s a worldwide problem that will come back time and time again if governments and international institutions do not act.
- For further information, please click here.
What is the Chinese government doing?
As soon as the link between the infectious disease known as COVID-19 with wildlife trade was confirmed, China issued a temporary ban on wildlife markets. Since the ban was established, China launched an unprecedented crackdown on wildlife trade. Within a time span of 20 days, Chinese authorities investigated 682 cases, sentenced 680 traffickers, and confiscated 38,000 wild animals and 2,347kg of wildlife products.
On February 24th, as a result of the public outcry, China’s top legislative committee voted to ban the buying, selling, transporting and eating of wildlife, and committed to abolishing the bad habit of wildlife consumption. The ban, which has rallied strong support from society, is indefinite until the country revises its Wildlife Protection Law.
During the peak of the outbreak, enforcement officers risked their own safety to continue the crackdown on illegal trade, arresting nine suspects leading to the confiscation of 820kg of pangolin scales. Continuous efforts addressing policy and social behaviour will help put a stop to illegal wildlife trade.
What is happening with IFAW’s Beijing Raptor Rescue Center?
Our Beijing Raptor Rescue Center (BRRC) is still at high risk response. Though we have temporarily stopped admitting new animals, our incredibly dedicated team of animal experts has not stopped working since the beginning of the outbreak in December.
Currently, 26 birds are in our care. Six of them are ready to be released, but they could not be transported to the release site in the suburb of Beijing, due to the traffic restrictions. Keeping the animals in captivity longer than necessary may compromise their welfare. We are working with the authorities to get permission so the recovered birds can return to the sky as soon as possible.
In addition to caring for the animals at the centre, the team is conducting post-release monitoring to ensure the wellbeing of released animals. Currently, teams are tracking an Upland Buzzard and a Golden Eagle with GPS and the data received indicates they’re in good condition.
For further information, please click here.
What is the correct terminology to use?
- The term coronavirus actually refers to a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans
- COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus
- Experts refer to this coronavirus as the novel coronavirus, meaning it’s a new type of coronavirus that was not previously known or understood
- Examples of previous coronaviruses include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and (MERS - Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
What can I do to help IFAW’s efforts?
Stay safe, stay informed and help others do the same.
IFAW’s Regional Director of Asia, Grace Gabriel has participated in an interview with The New York Times, was quoted in a recent video created by Vox and authored the pieces Will we learn our lesson from the Coronavirus epidemic? and Breaking the petri dish for growing epidemics, both currently on the IFAW website.
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