A variety of wild animals (including pangolin) for sale at an African bush meat market (copyright African Pangolin Working Group)
A open letter in response to the total ban on global “wet markets”
Dear Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu (Director General of the World Health Organisation) and
Ms Inger Andersen (Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program),
STATEMENT ON NOVEL CORONOVIRUS (COVID-19) PANDEMIC AND A RESPONSE TO THE CALL ON THE TOTAL BAN ON GLOBAL “WET MARKETS”
Humanity is under siege from a global viral pandemic. We, as a global community, have been through a number of these, many of which have changed the course of history and life as we know it. The current one, commonly referred to as COVID-19, will undoubtedly do the same. Its origin is mainland China – a country not new to catastrophic viral pandemics, recorded as early as 5000 years ago in “Hamin Mangha” and at the same time in “Miaozigou”, both in north-eastern China. Of more recent historical occurrence was the great flu pandemic of 1889, the Spanish Flu of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1957 (also originating from China), and more recently the H1N1 swine flu of 2009 and the ongoing Ebola epidemic. All seem to have a common thread – their origin was very likely a zoonotic infection where the virus was transferred, through a mutation event, from an animal to a human. COVID-19 was a similar event and a similar viral strain had occurred as SARS-CoV in 2002/3 in Guangdong Province, China and SARS MERS in 2012 in the Middle East. Like COVID-19, both were SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) viruses, both seemed to have originated from a common ‘natural’ host and both were unleashed through human utilisation of wild animals for consumption. It is now time that humanity ensure systems and processes are in place to protect both human populations as well as the world’s free-living wild animals and the natural spaces and ecosystems they occupy to benefit all living entities that share this planet.
Currently, there are two dominant schools of thought – one is to have a complete ban on global “wet” markets; the other to impose intense regulation measures within these markets on the animals traded so as not to be to the detriment of human communities and, to a lesser extent, wild animal populations. The first is unrealistic and the second would be almost impossible to regulate. In this open letter, we provide a simplistic summary of the virus, its transmission to humans, our view on a global ban of wet markets and a suggested compromise to both.
The origin and source of COVID-19
SARS or Coronaviruses are a diverse family of viruses with their most likely origin in a natural host species, often bats. Their name originates from the spiky projections on their outer surface that take the shape of a “crown”. Within the natural host, the virus is benign and cannot infect humans. However, the virus has an uncanny ability to mutate and, once it does, the molecular makeup of its binding surface changes and may be compatible with an alternative host that has come into close contact via the spread of blood or body fluid like excreta; or is a species that has preyed upon the natural host. These new (intermediate) hosts were an Asian civet species in the 2002/3 SARS outbreak in China, camels in the 2012 MERS outbreak in the Middle East and pangolins have been unproven accursed with this current SARS outbreak.
For the SARS virus to jump to an intermediate host in a wild natural environment is uncommon, although not impossible. For the SARS virus to be transmitted to an intermediate host via (forced) close contact is more likely and pretty much inevitable. These environments are created by humans in markets where animals are held in unsanitary conditions; welfare is minimal and manifold in species that are in close contact with one another, often slaughtered in what is termed a “wet” market environment. This is a cesspool of disease and is the epicentre of the vast majority of viral outbreaks that infect human populations and emanate from the direct, and often, inhumane utilisation of both wild and domestic animal species.
Transmission to humans
It is widely believed a SARS virus, carried by a species of Horseshoe bat, was passed on in a mutated form to an intermediate host in a wet market in Wuhan, central China, during 2019. The intermediate host species is unknown, however, an Asian species of pangolin was implicated. Either through indirect contact, direct contact of some sort or through consumption, this novel Coronavirus was transmitted to humans and COVID-19 spread like a wildfire across the globe hitching rides on human carriers primarily through rapid global air transport. It is abundantly clear that a future risk assessment strategy and a realistic action plan needs to be formulated urgently.
The total ban on wet markets OR the overregulation of these markets
In principle, inhibiting the spread of dangerous future zoonotic diseases is relatively simple – close down all wet markets. In reality, this is both not possible nor would it be sympathetic to the many millions of people around the world that rely on the utilisation of countless species of both plants and animals for their existence as a source of food and as an advantage in job creation amongst many other outcomes.
Both arguments have been clearly stated in open letters to you by well recognised animal welfare organisations and academics from various sources. Intense regulation in very remote rural communities, and associated wild food markets, in Africa and Asia (primarily) is also not practical nor realistic as the funding, manpower and social urgency does not exist and will not exist for a multitude of reasons. The cultural existence and long history of the utilisation of natural resources cannot be outlawed and set into law within societies that are many thousands of years old with strong cultural and traditional value systems. Many of these activities will simply continue unabated or even move underground and the welfare of animal species will likely deteriorate further and the likelihood of a disease outbreak will be even greater.
Proposed way forward to inhibit the spread of future zoonotic diseases
Zoonotic diseases such as SARS Coronoviruses, Ebola, AIDS, Swine Flu and a multitude of other viruses involve a very specific group of vertebrate terrestrial mammals being kept under conditions where their welfare is compromised and in close proximity to other wild and domestic animals that are being utilised by humans for consumption. This is the ideal climate for both host and intermediate host virus transmitting species.
Firstly, the consumption of predatory terrestrial and semi-terrestrial carnivores, insectivores, a small group of omnivores and a smaller group of frugivores are primarily responsible for a large percentage of these outbreaks or, at least, the initial origin and source of these outbreaks. These include but are not limited to the Felidae, the Canidae, the Manidae, bats, primates, civets, and others (to be identified by WHO appointed epidemiologists) where viral zoonotic epidemic risk is considered very high and likely.
Secondly, inhumane conditions relating to animal welfare, husbandry and close confinement leads to a compromised immune system and play a considerable role in both the origin and transmission of these highly contagious zoonotic viral diseases. Guidelines on humane animal welfare have been developed by a multitude of organisations and can be implimated with little additional cost or effort.
Implementation of regulations relating to both the above is realistic and achievable for the benefit of the welfare of humans and a multitude of vertebrate species that are often regarded as key species in terrestrial ecosystems. The identification of these species (representing animal orders) can be rolled out to communities via visual pamphlets, social media and general media. It is pertinent to mention that current laws relating to protected species within range states are generally and most often ignored. The process of publically identifying certain “groups of species” (Orders) is expected to be more acceptable than providing endless lists of protected species in countries such as Africa and Asia. Mechanisms of communication to even very remote regions have been proven to be very successful recently in a multitude of Asian and African countries with regards the further spread of COVID-19. Similar communication methods can be implemented in the prevention of the use of species identified as high-risk in the potential spread of zoonotic viruses.
These proposed regulations are achievable and will reduce the risk of further epidemiological pandemics considerably whilst ensuring the well-being of species in these markets as well as the humans that depend on these species for survival. This is by no means a definitive ‘recipe’ to the issue at hand but an initial realistic proposal to the benefit of all who are at risk.
Professor Ray Jansen
Chairman of the African Pangolin Working Group
On behalf of the African Pangolin Working Group