When people talk about the possibility of infection between humans and animals, diseases like rabies or Lyme might come to mind. The former is spread through saliva, while the latter is caused by a tick bite. The thought that what we eat may kill us isn’t very pleasant, so it isn’t as discussed in the public sphere. However, every now and then, an outbreak causes us to be more aware of the food we consume.

In 2009, Egypt ordered the mass killing of all pigs to quell public panic during the H1N1 virus (swine flu) pandemic, according to a 2009 article by Ashraf Badr and Cynthia Johnston for Reuters. In 2017, the Philippines’ first avian flu outbreak led to the deaths of around 37,000 birds and the killing of all birds within a kilometer ofthe infected farms in San Luis, Pampanga, as reported by Ian Ocampo Flora in a 2017 article for Sun Star. Humans rejected pork at the height of swine flu and chicken at the height of bird flu, but what happens when a zoonotic outbreak is linked to a wild animal?

Pandemic on our plates

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China has been referred to as COVID-19’s ground zero. Chinese markets are often cramped spaces that sell caged chickens, skinned rabbits, seafood, and snakes, among others. This makes them a hotbed for the spread of zoonotic diseases, and all coronaviruses are zoonotic, according to the World Health Organization.

Upon learning of the link to the Huanan Market, authorities closed it down on January 1 and banned the trade of live animals in all Wuhan wet markets on January 22. China has since announced that it will be cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade, as reported by Aylin Woodward in a 2020 article for Business Insider.

Virologists say vats have the ability to start pandemics because it’s happened before. SARS spread via bat poop and saliva, infecting other animals in the Guangdong market. Ebola, Middle Easter respiratory syndrome (MERS), and the Nipah virus have all been linked to bats. A 2020 study by Pen Zhou and colleagues published in the journal Nature found that COVID-19 is 96% genetically identical to a bat coronavirus.

Others guess that it may have traveled through intermediary hosts like endangered pangolins, but the truth is that wild animals may not entirely be to blame.

Blaming bats

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 originated from a wet market in Guangdong, China and was linked to bats. The 2019 novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, was also traced back to a wet market in China and is now being linked to bats.

Did you know?

Bats were thought to be the source of COVID-19, bringing worldwide attention to the consumption of wild animals, such as pigs, cows, and other farm animals consumed for food, has been linked to faster rates of infection throughout history, according to 2014 research by the University of Liverpool.

What this means for us

Governments can ban wildlife markets to prevent illegal trade, but a re-evaluation of humans’ treatment of animals is perhaps the most necessary to prevent the spread of new diseases.

When the world learned that the 2019 novel coronavirus originated in China, racist memes and stories spread about Chinese eating habits and wet markets. The reality is that every country has shameful practices that could encourage the sharing of parasites and pathogens from animals to humans.

Any country that participates in animal agriculture is vulnerable to new diseases. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 75% of all emerging diseases are from animals, as reported in a 2020 PETA UK article. By eating animals, we choose to expose ourselves to this risk.

The fact that we are more vulnerable to this risk the more we domesticate animals is reason enough to let animals be. If anything, these diseases may be their last mode of protection from a future on our plates and a sign from nature that animal agribusiness just isn’t the way to go.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s May-June 2020 issue.

You might want to read:
– France and Chile train dogs to sniff out coronavirus
– Coronavirus ground zero: From a live animal market to fresh produce stands
– Pets not a major coronavirus spread, CDC says