The COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives all over the world. It sent billions into lockdown this past March and has spread from nation to nation. But how did it all start?
The Varsity spoke with Kerry Bowman — a conservationist and bioethicist cross-appointed to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, Joint Centre for Bioethics, and School of the Environment — who shed some light on the wildlife crisis that caused the global outbreak of COVID-19.
The origins of COVID-19 from wet markets
By now, many people have heard that COVID-19 is suspected to have emerged in the Wuhan province of China in a wet market in December 2019, but there is still confusion over what a wet market is.
A wet market is simply any open-air space where perishable goods are sold, including local produce, seafood, and meat. Dry markets, on the other hand, sell non-perishable goods such as fabrics.
Not every wet market sells wildlife — although COVID-19 is believed to have emerged from one that did. ‘Wildlife market’ is a more accurate term for wet markets where wild animal meat is sold.
Bowman has a particular interest in these wildlife markets and has observed them around the world. He himself went to the Wuhan market in 2017, where he counted 56 species of animals.
“The world wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry,” he said. According to him, illegal wildlife is being sold in “markets all over the world” — from Africa, to South America, and even in East Asia in places such as China. However, the market from which COVID-19 is said to have spread was legal.
“We cannot continue to commodify and let wildlife be run by market forces,” Bowman said. “We’ve always looked at these outbreaks — [severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)] included — as one-time events, and anyone who’s knowledgeable about what goes on in these markets can see that [COVID-19] was an accident waiting to happen.”
Addressing the disease risks from wildlife markets
Would the complete halt of these markets stop viruses such as SARS and COVID-19 from spreading in the future? Bowman believes that it is not that simple. “I think wildlife markets absolutely should be shut down, but it’s not as easy as it sounds,” he said.
“There’s elements of cultural expression that would have to be dealt with because eating wild animals goes back in some cultures about 5,000 years. For example, in Africa, there are issues of food security.”
Nevertheless, Bowman believes one of the first things to do is to get endangered animals out of the equation and remove hybrid species from these markets. He thinks the best way going forward is to start with an international wildlife ban and then slowly figure out how to move forward in places such as China, where wildlife is farmed.
But what exactly is wildlife farming? Dr. Shelby Riskin, an assistant professor at U of T’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, wrote to The Varsity that wildlife farming is “the commercial breeding of wild, as opposed to domesticated, animals.”
“Wildlife farming is often presented as a way of relieving the pressure on threatened populations,” she continued. “The theory goes that by breeding and then selling animals within a legal market, the pressure for poaching of wild populations will be decreased.”
However, Riskin noted that bred animals do not always have the same economic value as those caught in the wild. “There are also ethical concerns for how the animals are treated in these farms, as opposed to captive breeding programs within zoos or other more formal conservation programs,” she wrote.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the wildlife trade is a global enterprise worth billions of dollars, involving tens of thousands of animal species. Apart from the complex parallel system of wildlife markets contributing to the spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, Bowman believes that they also contribute to the global diversity crisis.
“We’re losing biodiversity left, right, and centre; it’s not just the wildlife market,” he said. “What’s happening is that so much habitat has been lost [that] we have species that are not normally living on top of each other in a forest that gets smaller.”
“On top of that, they’re very stressed by a changing climate, and some of the species are moving into different areas because the climate is changing.”
Did bats cause the COVID-19 pandemic?
The growing scientific consensus is that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, originated in bats but required an intermediary animal host before it could be passed to a human.
A Nature study published in late March was among the first to provide evidence of SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins. Agreement grew swiftly — a month later a study from Chinese researchers found a 91 per cent genetic correspondence between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a coronavirus found in pangolin tissues.
Bowman’s own view is that the pandemic was partly caused by a recombination of viruses from species to species.
“There’s a strange joke, but some people are calling this the ‘revenge of the pangolin,’ ” he said. “The pangolin is the most traded animal in the world, and [pangolins] are being wiped off the face of the earth because of the trade. They may be the trigger species for the virus.”
Canada’s role in preventing future pandemics
Even though such species are not popular in Canada, we may have a bigger role to play than we think. According to Bowman, an international treaty to stop the trade of wildlife exists, but has very little funding.
“We’ve invested next to nothing in that,” he said. “The sad reality is, we don’t change things. It’s a matter of time until this happens again.”
Bowman believes that part of the problem is that wildlife markets have gone from occasional domestic use to a commercial enterprise, especially in East Asia and Africa. Although people have eaten wildlife for a long time, the commercial enterprise of the illegal wildlife trade has elevated concerns significantly.
Ultimately, if the wildlife trade does not face reform, we may not only exacerbate the biodiversity crisis — we could also be at risk of another pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease. The lack of scrutiny on the trade of endangered species in legal and illegal markets has damaged public safety.
Perhaps now, when it comes at a personal expense to humankind, governments will take a stance. The Chinese government is already taking the first step by implementing a strict ban on the consumption and farming of wild animals.