WASHINGTON – In the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government moved quickly to ban wildlife consumption and crack down on certain "wet markets" where snakes, civets and other exotic animals are sold along with more traditional livestock.
Scientists applauded the move as long overdue, but some fear it won't last – and they argue much more needs to be done to guard against future diseases that can make the animal-to-human leap.
Experts also worry that President Donald Trump's unsupported suggestion, echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab – rather than emerged in a wet market – could undermine efforts to confront a dangerous and recurring source of potential disease outbreaks: wildlife trafficking.
"It is deflecting and diverting attention from the real problem," said Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a consultant for animal welfare groups.
Scientists believe the deadly novel coronavirus now circulating the globe likely came from bats and passed through another mammal – perhaps a pangolin, one of the most trafficked animals in the world – before jumping to humans. Chinese authorities identified an early cluster of coronavirus infections among individuals who had some connection to a seafood wet market in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.
It has not been proved definitively that virus transmission began in that market, but scientists say such markets are hotbeds of disease. Some wet markets in China sell live poultry, fish and reptiles, as well as a range of exotic and farm-bred wild animals.
"These wet markets are really perfectly conducive to spillover events, because you have so many different species coming in – you have wild species interacting with domestic species," said George Wittemyer, an associate professor of wildlife and conservation biology at Colorado State University.
"You have animals stacked on top of each other," with blood, feces and other fluids flowing from their cages, he added. "You are probably having hundreds to thousands of individual animals exposed to other species," along with humans "actively behaving in a way that's perfect for viral transmission."
Domesticated livestock are also a major source of emerging diseases, Wittemyer said, and "you're sort of playing Russian roulette" without aggressive efforts to track new pathogens in animals.
Devastating the planet for whims of the wealthy?
Scientists estimate that 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Humans can catch a virus from an infected animal in many ways – through their saliva or other bodily fluids; through their habitat, whether a forest or a chicken coop; and via consumption of raw or undercooked meat or other contaminated food.
A slew of deadly diseases – from HIV to Ebola – began in animals and jumped to humans, with consumption of wildlife meat or other interactions with wildlife as the likely vector. As with COVID-19, scientists believe the 2003 SARS epidemic began in a wet market in southern China, after moving from a bat to a civet cat, which are sometimes sold in those markets.
Trump said on April 30 that he had seen evidence suggesting the novel coronavirus originated in a virology lab in Wuhan. Similarly, Pompeo said earlier this month there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the virus emerged from a Chinese lab.
But neither have detailed what that evidence is, and they have both hedged when pressed by reporters. “We don’t have certainty about whether it began in the lab or whether it began someplace else," Pompeo said during a media briefing on May 6.
And other officials have contradicted their assertions. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has said the scientific evidence does not support the theory that the virus was man-made.
"Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that (this virus) evolved in nature and then jumped species," Fauci told National Geographic in an interview published earlier this month.
Some critics believe Trump has pressed for an investigation into the origin of the virus as a way to deflect blame for his own missteps in responding to the pandemic. The U.S. intelligence community issued a rare statement in April stating there was broad consensus that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified. But the statement left open the question of whether the virus was accidentally released by a laboratory in China or whether it came from animals and then jumped to humans.
"My biggest concern with the politicization of it is that it's delaying what we actually need," said Wittemyer, which is a global recognition that human interactions with animals present a major disease risk.
Experts say only a sliver of wet markets sell wildlife, and the demand for such exotic food is mostly fueled by the wealthy.
"It's the luxury part of wildlife food trade that creates problems," said Andrew Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. Fancy restaurants serve them to wealthy customers, and some high-flying couples like to serve exotic animal dishes at their weddings, he said, just as some Americans buy elephant ivory or smuggle parrots, snakes and other wild animals into the U.S. to keep as exotic pets.
"Really, it's devastating the planet for the whims of wealthy people," he said.
Dobson said eliminating wildlife trafficking – whether for food or other uses – would have a dramatic impact on the risk of future disease outbreaks.
"It would halve it," he said.
Dobson and others say that China's decision to ban the consumption of wildlife is a positive step – but a baby one.
For starters, China's ban includes loopholes – including the use of wild animal parts for medicinal purposes and tax incentives that encourage the export of some species. That leaves many wild animals vulnerable.
Take, for example, pangonlins. They are small mammals covered in scales that live in Asia and Africa. In some Asian countries, the meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional Asian medicine. Pangolins are protected under international law, but they are still widely trafficked amid demand from China, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Wildlife traders "promote wild animal meat as something good for your health," Li said, pointing to unsupported claims that pangolin scales can boost fertility, among other promises. Li ridiculed the unproven aphrodisiac and disease-fighting properties of exotic meats and said wet markets are not only "hellholes" of cruelty but also of disease.
Dobson said the international body that monitors the global wildlife trade is weak and underfunded, with a $25 million annual budget. And many countries have little to no incentive to crack down on wildlife trafficking.
"The wildlife trade is hugely corrupt and massively tied up with the arms trade," as well as human smuggling, he said.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative global crime, according to the World Economic Forum. Wildlife advocacy groups estimated that wildlife trade generates between $7 billion and $23 billion annually.
'Shocking to see markets ... in full operation'
Li noted that after the SARS outbreak, Chinese authorities reversed a 2003 ban on wildlife consumption amid pressure from traders and because Chinese authorities saw wildlife breeding as a revenue source and job creator in otherwise poor, rural areas of the country.
"The Chinese government quickly reopened the trade on August 5, 2003, so barely two months after SARS was over," he said.
Even if China keeps it's new ban in place, other Asian countries have not yet followed suit – despite new pressure from animal-rights groups and conservation experts who point to the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Last week, one advocacy group dedicated to saving dogs begged Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, to close markets where live animals are sold and slaughtered on-site.
"It is shocking to see markets selling wildlife and domesticated animals in full operation – many of which are in densely populated cities such as Jakarta, Medan and Manado – providing almost identical environments to those from which COVID-19 emerged," reads a May 12 letter from a coalition called Dog Meat Free Indonesia.
Still, Li and others say they are optimistic that the catastrophic toll of the coronavirus pandemic – in terms of worldwide deaths and the global economic contraction – will lead to a more aggressive crackdown on wildlife trafficking in China and elsewhere.
Wittemyer said the Chinese government will face intense domestic and international pressure to keep its current ban in place, and other world leaders should also be motivated to step up tracking and enforcement. But any such effort will run up against strong political and cultural headwinds, he added.
"I will be so disappointed in humanity if, after ... putting ourselves through this much pain, that we would be that short-sighted" not to address wildlife trafficking, he said. "It's a loaded gun for us, as we see."