Fact check: Is COVID-19 caused by human consumption of animals?

The CDC and a new study look at how long the coronavirus can live on surfaces. USA TODAY

The claim: The coronavirus pandemic resulted from human consumption of animals.

On March 15, vegan influencer Ed Winters, who often goes by the name “Earthling Ed” on social media, posted a graphic to his Instagram account stating that “COVID-19 was caused by eating animals.” "The new coronavirus pandemic would not have started if we didn’t farm and eat animals," Winters wrote.

The post lists several other diseases that reached epidemic and pandemic levels, and it asserts that "the one thing they all have in common is that they started because of our exploitation of #animals." The graphic on the post concludes that “COVID-19 would not exist if the world was vegan. Your personal choice to eat animals impacts every living being on this planet." 

The graphic, which has received more than 66,000 likes and 3,000 comments on Winters' Instagram account, was reposted to @cowspiracy, another Instagram account, where it also went viral. @Cowspiracy advocates for veganism –  including promoting the 2014 documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” – and advocates for other pro-animal rights policies. On the @Cowspiracy account, the post in question has more than 27,000 likes and 1,000 comments, as of this writing.

@Cowspiracy has about 475,000 followers on Instagram. Winters’ Instagram account has about 387,000 followers and roughly 247,000 on his YouTube channel.

When USA TODAY reached to Winters for comment, he provided further context and detail to his claim. “Of course, many zoonotic diseases are unrelated to our exploitation of animals, and being vegan wouldn’t completely eliminate all of them, (Zika virus) being a prime example.” Winters, however, provided a study co-written by the World Health Organization that found some behaviors associated with eating meat can be risk factors in the rise of new diseases.

Winters also connected the prevalence of diseases like HIV, Ebola and Nipah virus to eating bushmeat. He also cited the rising threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which the World Health Organization has linked to overuse of antibiotics in the production of animal products.

Winters also told USA TODAY: “Again, not all zoonotic diseases are created because we exploit animals, however it is undeniable that the exploitation of animals creates environments where the likelihood of spillovers occurring is significantly increased, and if we weren’t using animals for food we wouldn’t have created situations where many of these diseases, including the latest coronavirus, were passed to humans.”

Humans, animals and zoonotic diseases

Many viruses, bacteria and parasites that have caused major diseases in the past have been zoonotic, meaning they had their origin in animalsThe graphic from Winters' Instagram post, and reposted to @Cowspiracy, cites the viruses and diseases avian flu, Ebola, HIV, swine flu, SARS and vCJD, which all arose in humans after infections from other species.

Zoonotic diseases happen when humans and animals are near each other. Common activities that can cause human-animal interaction include farming, hunting, ranching and keeping animals as pets. Human-animal contact is also heightened when humans encroach on wild lands.

Most of the diseases cited in the graphic arose in conditions where animals were being hunted or raised for human consumption. There have been documented epidemics caused by strains of avian and swine flus for the past century.

The 1918 flu, which infected over a quarter of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, was caused by an H1N1 virus that historians say likely originated in a Kansas chicken farm. An H1N1 strain that reached pandemic levels in the United States and Mexico in 2009 likely had its origins in the pig populations of both countries.

Ebola and HIV, which transferred to humans from primates like chimpanzees and gorillas, were discovered in regions of sub-Saharan Africa where communities were near primate populations.

Many zoonotic diseases, however, are not the result of human farming of animals. Malaria, which arose in Africa and likely co-evolved with nonhuman primates and mosquitoes, was not the result of humans eating any species. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that caused the plague in the 14th century, was carried around the world by fleas attached to people and rats. Pandemic diseases do not need to originate in animals that humans are especially prone to eating to be catastrophic for entire nations or regions of the planet.

“There are handful of food-borne parasitic diseases that one can only get from eating undercooked or raw pork so if you stopped eating pork altogether, you’d never need worry about any of those,” said Dr. Stephen Felt, a professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University Medical Center.

“But certainly, for zoonotic agents not transmitted through ingestion of infected meat, it would be difficult to claim with any certainty that the occurrence of these diseases would be reduced if humans began to consume less animal products,” Felt added.

Proximity to animals, in general, is the most important factor in the rise of new animal-to-human diseases. “Consuming less animal products may help,” said Dr. Homayoon Farzadegan, a professor who teaches epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “But just living in close proximity with animals that are the potential reservoir of zoonotic viruses may lead to new transmissions.”

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, likely began in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. Early research suggests the virus originated in bats and was transferred by a yet unknown intermediary animal to people. A possible animal that could’ve acted as a middleman is the pangolin (also called a scaly anteater), which is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries and illegally traded for its meat and scales.

Wet markets are places where people can buy a variety of live animals for consumption. Many different species can be found stacked on top of one another in such environments, which are conducive to cross-species disease transfer.  

It is impossible to determine whether COVID-19 would have arisen without the existence of the wet markets or settings like it, but it is true that such markets supply the conditions for such diseases to arise and infect humans. Indeed, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, resulted from a virus transferring from bats to civet cats and then humans. Discovered in 2003, SARS originated at a wet market similar to the one now suspected to be the origin of COVID-19.

Similarly, it is difficult to determine how many zoonotic diseases would arise in a world where humans didn’t eat meat. Yet even with the preventative measures in the American food system, like feeding livestock antibiotics and pathogen-reducing treatments like the chlorine washing of meat, the proximity to animals still allows for the possibility that diseases might be transferred through direct human-animal contact.

Reducing human contact with animals, however, is likely the most effective way to lower the risk of transferring pandemic-causing viruses and bacteria to humans from animal populations.

Our ruling: Partly false

We rate the claim that COVID-19 was caused by eating animals partly false because some of the claim is not supported by our research. While it is true that many infectious diseases that have wreaked havoc on humans have come from animals, it is not entirely the case that ending the consumption of animals would put an end to such diseases. Limiting contact with animals, even assuming they are not being consumed by humans, would be necessary to lessen the chances that viruses and other pathogens transfer between species and infect humans.

Our fact-check sources:

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/03/18/coronavirus-fact-check-covid-19-caused-eating-animals/5073094002/

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