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Gerald Winegrad: Coronavirus likely sprung from our abuse of the environment. Will we learn the lesson? | COMMENTARY

Giraffes are killed for bush meat and have declined alarmingly by 40% in 30 years, only 100,000 left out of 1 million in 1920. The Impalas also are taken for bush meat. Photo: Carol Swan on Botswana Safari.
Giraffes are killed for bush meat and have declined alarmingly by 40% in 30 years, only 100,000 left out of 1 million in 1920. The Impalas also are taken for bush meat. Photo: Carol Swan on Botswana Safari. (Carol Swan / Capital Gazette)

The coronavirus pandemic has infected 11.6 million people globally causing 539,026 deaths.  The U.S. leads all nations by a wide margin with 2.9 million cases and 129,963 deaths.

This pandemic continues to spike where leaders were slow to initiate preventative measures. Our economy has been wrecked and our social fabric threatened with lost jobs, schools closed, and social isolation. 

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COVID-19 is caused by a virus in a group called coronaviruses.  The coronavirus is a zoonotic disease meaning it is caused by germs that spread from animals to people. There are 827,000 animal-borne viruses that could cause human infections. Some 75%  of new human infectious diseases are zoonotic — they come from animals.  Antibiotics do not work against viruses.

It is quite likely COVID-19 was contracted in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, one of thousands of Chinese wet markets.  Live animals are slaughtered and sold at such markets which bring butchers and consumers in direct contact with wild animals and their viruses.

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Evidence suggests COVID-19 came from people processing bat carcasses and guano for traditional Chinese medicines or when “Patient Zero” consumed bat or pangolin meat.  

Tens of thousands of such high-risk markets with unsanitary conditions and little refrigeration exist in many countries particularly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.  Bushmeat is popular with larger markets employing 120 butchers slaughtering endangered pangolins, bats, and leopard cats, and masked palm civets, ferret badgers, barking deer, and snakes.

More than 300 mammals are threatened with extinction by bushmeat consumption including lemurs, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, zebras, and giraffes. In my travels to Amazonia over the decades, I have noted a significant decline in monkeys and turtles related to capture for bush meat.  

In an Indonesian market, 90,000 mammals are sold per year. A 25-weekend survey at a Thailand market documented that 70,000 birds, 276 species, were sold.  Slaughtering these wild species could cause the next pandemic.

After the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002, 838,500 wild animals were confiscated from Guangzhou, China wet markets. SARS began in 2002 from coronavirus SARS-CoV. After 15 years of painstaking research, scientists pinned the source definitively to captured horseshoe bats passed on to palm civets to people.

These scientists warned in a 2017 published paper that the ingredients are in place for a similar disease to emerge again. They were right: the virus causing COVID-19 is known as SARS‐CoV‐2, closely related to the horseshoe bat SARS coronavirus. 

This evidence should not lead to condemnation of bats as they are critically important for insect control and pollination.  Bats just need to be left alone and not captured and eaten. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci has joined UN and World Health Organization scientists along with thousands of other scientists and environmental groups in urging the end to live wildlife markets around the globe. Fauci called wildlife markets “a superhighway” for transmission of disease.

The global trade in wildlife is another source of zoonotic disease transmission. This trade, coupled with sale of wild animals for meat and medicinal purposes and habitat destruction, is causing the Sixth Great Extinction, the first in 60 million years. About 40,000 live primates including monkeys, 4 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, and 350 million live tropical fish are traded globally annually. 

Disease outbreaks resulting from wildlife trade have caused trillions of dollars of economic damage globally. This trade is immediately manageable as nations acting globally can shut it down. The U.S. and China are responsible for 60% of global imports and exports of wildlife, respectively, but the Trump Administration has reversed protections under the Endangered Species Act and eased importation of wild animal parts and trophies. 

More than 60 members of Congress led by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, joined in urging leading international health and wildlife organizations to take aggressive action toward a permanent global ban of live wet wildlife markets and closing international trade in live wildlife. 

Alarmingly, the scientific consensus is that risks of new zoonotic viruses are increasing.  One disease ecologist noted: “We are doing everything to help them emerge.” 

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Besides closing wet markets and global wildlife trade, it is essential to end unsustainable bush meat capture and trade in rural areas by providing other protein sources, stopping habitat loss such as deforestation which brings people closer to wild animals, and establishing buffers around protected areas. 

Zoonotic pandemics are nothing new: in 865 AD, 5 million people died from smallpox from Roman soldiers caused by rodents; and 25 million died in the rodent-caused bubonic plague from 1347-1352. What is new is the extreme increase in contact with wild animals by 7.8 billion humans and how much more rapidly and easily a zoonotic spillover infectious disease can spread due to globalization.  

Mother Nature is sending us a message.  Will we heed her?

Giraffes are killed for bush meat and have declined alarmingly by 40% in 30 years, only 100,000 left out of 1 million in 1920. The Impalas also are taken for bush meat.
Giraffes are killed for bush meat and have declined alarmingly by 40% in 30 years, only 100,000 left out of 1 million in 1920. The Impalas also are taken for bush meat. (Carol Swan / Baltimore Sun)

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